Declarations of Independence – Israel and the United States of America

Political comparisons are difficult and sometimes questionable. It is one thing to compare apples and oranges. It is another to compare cherries and potatoes. Do the two items being compared even belong to the same genus? However, whatever the difficulty in making comparisons, there are clear benefits. In this case, the very process of comparison shifts the ground away from making the American declaration the prototype and considering all other expressions of the same genus as either poorer imitations or outliers. Further, new and very different grounds may be used to justify independence. David Hume (about whom more later) in his 1746 volume, Of the Original Contract wrote that any group or people require a justificatory story and “a philosophical or speculative system of principles.” (40)

With an expanded set of explanatory-interpretive justifications, we become more open to both interpretive possibilities as well as limitations on our own thinking. We also see how common problems intermingled with very different ones offer deeper or, at the very least, alternative understandings of the two proclamations. Finally, assumptions built into the model considered to be paradigmatic suddenly can be openly questioned in light of very different justifications and rationales. We enter the arena of cross-cultural comparisons rather than a presumed derivation or deviation from a universal model.

The actual comparison will offer a test of these presumptions.

A minor but important consideration requires attending to what is being compared. In Israel, the only issue is one of an adequate translation into English of the declaration since that is the language being used for comparison. There is only one authentic document. However, in the U.S., there is the 7 June 1776 version introduced at the Second Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee. Then there is the revised version (the Dunlap copy) introduced on 4 July 1776 which has a different title (“In Congress July 4, 1776, A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled.”) than the “final” official version of 19 July, if only because of the inclusion in the latter of New York State as a signatory, and the declaration of the status of the document as unanimous. (“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America“) However, the changes from the original to the revered copy are not central to my comparative analysis.

The latter issue, however, focuses on the authors of the proclamation as pre-eminent in the U.S. declaration. The authors are presumed to be political entities that have come together to a) become sovereign and b) become independent of the state which had been sovereign. However, the latter is secondary, as we shall see. The primary declaration is about the sovereignty of a people. The document only later was referred to as a declaration of independence as the war rather than political maneuvering became the main instrument for delivering that sovereignty.

So the opening sentence reads: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Note the following:

  1. The emphasis on necessity.
  2. The statement that the constituent members of the thirteen states are “one people,” thus declaring that, although the signatories are representatives of thirteen political entities, the proclamation is issued on behalf of “one people.” This will be crucial to the resistance of the north to a second secession in the American Civil War.
  3. The emphasis is on “dissolution” of existing political ties.
  4. The result will be a single sovereign state equal to others that exist on Earth.
  5. The entitlement is seen as twofold: Natural Law and Nature’s God (my italics); (I will deal with this in more detail in the next blog).
  6. The importance of justification for the act of separation.

Compare the above to the opening paragraph of the Israeli declaration of independence. “ARETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) – the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

The U.S. declaration begins with “one people.” The Israeli declaration begins with the land of Israel. There is no claim that the land in North America was the birthplace of the “one people” on behalf of whom the declaration was issued. In history, rather, there was a presumption that the birthplace of the people was Britain and that these were Brits largely of Scottish-Irish (northern and Protestant) descent who were declaring themselves to be one people as a distinct political nation from the Tory High Anglican character of their motherland. Of the 56 who signed, 16 were Welsh. Although individuals ratified the document on behalf of states, 8 were Irish American Orangemen, 3 born in Ireland; all of the Irish officially signed the document together on 2 August 1776. At least 9 were of Scottish origin. In a speech, George W. Bush even traced the roots of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to the 1320 Scots’ Declaration of Arbroath arguing for Scotland’s freedom from England. Thus, over half had Celtic heritage.

More importantly, their intellectual heritage was Scottish. The heritage of the Scottish Enlightenment had perhaps the greatest influence on the American Declaration of Independence. Though Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the first version, was of mixed French and Irish ancestry, he is not included among the Celts, but he openly acknowledged that John Locke had been the greatest influence on his thinking. I well remember giving a lecture at the University of Edinburgh with portraits of John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume on the walls. The era of the Scottish Enlightenment following the Dutch one was the portal to the modern world and one must stand in humility beneath those portraits.

Locke in the Second Treatise on Civil Government had set forth the thesis that all men are born equal with natural rights, rights which enabled them to determine whom they would bind with to form a people. A nation, therefore, was a construct itself of the self-determination of individuals who entered a social contract for mutual defense and benefit. David Hume, who died in the same year as the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, argued that, although justification required citing history and general principles, the primary motivation for action was passion or sentiment. “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Treatise of Human Nature, II, iii, 1740) This would serve as a subversive strain in the American character given a scientific rationale through the recent works of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and George Lakoff.

John Locke, however, offered the dominant prescription for a government of, by and for the people. On very different grounds, both he and David Hume detested the Tory thesis of the divine right of kings and the pre-eminent sovereignty of the monarch which forbad revolution against the king. However, they offered a very different ground for the formation of a nation. Whatever differences over the motivation for a social contract, both agreed that a social contract was a foundation for the legitimacy of a state.

Not so in Israel. The people were formed by a land and a history rooted in a great historical document, the Torah of the Jews. Their identity was not constituted by a contract of self-interested individuals to ensure the security and happiness of those Jews, but by that history and the formation of their ancient state that shaped their culture. Though not derived from alleged universal principles and more akin to the moral sentiment espoused by David Hume, the Israeli declaration made the claim that the Jewish culture had a universal significance.

There is no foundation in logical or natural necessity for the Israeli proclamation. The declaration of independence did not constitute Jews as a people; peoplehood preceded the declaration of the State of Israel of 1948 or even the Israel of ancient history. The emphasis is not on dissolution of existing ties, but on re-constituting ancient ties both to the land and one another. Thus, the emphasis in the second paragraph on exile and return and restoration. However, the same idea of freedom forges a link between the two declarations which may go back to the days when the members of the Dutch Enlightenment (Hugo Grotius for example) had such an enormous influence on the Scottish Enlightenment since the Dutchmen justified the separation of the Netherlands from Spain, knew Hebrew and used the history of the Jewish people, adapted for Dutch purposes to justify the separate but equal status of the Netherlands.

The Israeli document bears the sweet scent, not of equality among nations, but about historical leadership by the People of the Book. They shall be a light among the nations. Finally, two-thirds of the American document focuses on tales of oppression and absence of recognition, whereas the Israeli document cites the worst type of oppression, genocide, but, more importantly, a history of recognition from the British (the Balfour Declaration), League of Nations and United Nations rulings. The Israeli state is rooted more in the international law of Hugo Grotius than in the social contract theories of John Locke and David Hume.

The traditional attachment, however, is vintage Hume. Further, the nation preceded the state and was not constituted by a social contract forming the state. The authors of the proclamation are not representatives of existing states seeking sovereignty, but of a nation seeking to reclaim its sovereignty. Thus, though referred to as the key document behind Israel’s Independence Day, the document does not seem to be about independence. The primary declaration of the American Declaration of Independence is about the formation of a sovereign people; the primary declaration of the Israeli Declaration of Independence is about the pre-existing sovereignty of a people.

With the help of Alex Zisman