Friday, October 8, 2010

Walter Isaacson: The Declaration of Independence as "a work of propaganda"

A Declaration of Mutual Dependence
The New York Times
July 4, 2004

Amid all the hot dogs and fireworks, it's useful to reflect for a moment on precisely what we are celebrating today. Yes, Americans know that the Fourth of July is about independence and an aversion to colonialism -- but what was that sacred parchment to which the founders affixed their John Hancocks really all about, and why is it relevant today?

By July 1776, the Continental Congress had concluded not only that the American colonies ought to be independent, but also that they needed to explain why to the rest of the world. Thomas Jefferson, who received the honor of writing the first draft of this document, was very direct about the motivation in his first sentence: "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" required the founders to explain what they were doing.

Thus the Declaration of Independence is, in effect, a work of propaganda -- or, to put it more politely, an exercise in public diplomacy intended to enlist other countries to the cause.

If you are trying to persuade people to join with you, there are three general methods. You can coerce them with threats, convince them by pointing out their own interests, or entice them by appealing to their ideals. Those who run businesses or, for that matter, who have teenage children, know how each of these approaches work.

One can imagine the founders trying the first approach on France and other European countries in 1776. We are breaking away from Britain, they could have said, and you're either for us or against us. If you're against us, your ships are not safe near our shores, your future trade is at risk, and if we win you might as well forget about the fur trade and navigating on the Mississippi River.

Or, they could have used the second tack. The continental Europeans, they could have pointed out, had been fighting England off and on for four centuries or so, and the best way to shift the balance of power would be by driving a wedge between England and its colonies and forging treaties of friendship with America.

Instead, they tried the third method: they appealed to the values and the ideals of potential allies.

Because they were Enlightenment thinkers, the drafters of the declaration, particularly Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, began by positing basic premises, an analytic approach that reflected the philosophical methods of John Locke and the scientific method of Isaac Newton. People are created equal, they postulated, and they have certain unalienable rights.

Where did these axioms come from? At first, the founders foundered a bit in figuring that out. "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable," Jefferson wrote in his initial rough draft. Franklin crossed this out with his heavy printer's pen and changed it to "we hold these truths to be self-evident." Drawing on the concepts of his friend David Hume, Franklin believed that the truths were grounded in rationality and reason, not in the dictates or dogma of any particular religion.

Similarly, Jefferson originally noted that "from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable." John Adams, a product of Puritan Massachusetts, appears to be the one who suggested that this be amended to, "they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." But whatever the provenance of these basic premises, it was clear what this meant for the role and the legitimacy of governments: "To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." A nice concept.

In order to make these ideals a reality, however, the Americans had to get France in on their side. Even back then, the French were a bit difficult, so Congress sent Franklin, by then in his 70's, to woo them. He wrote some brilliant balance-of-power memos appealing to France's interests, but then he did something unusual: he began appealing to France's ideals as well. He built a press at his house on the outskirts of Paris and printed the declaration and other inspiring documents from America to show the French that the colonists were fighting for the ideals of liberty and out of an aversion to tyranny, causes that were welling up in their country as well. It worked. France joined our cause in 1778 and helped make sure that we won.

These are the same values -- liberty and aversion to tyranny -- that America still shares with the French and our other natural allies. But unlike the founders, we are not as willing to court the hearts and minds of others. Rather than caring for the opinions of mankind, President Bush jokes, "Call my lawyer," when the concept of international law is raised. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw little need to distribute the Geneva Convention rules to American soldiers dealing with prisoners.

Machiavelli famously advised his prince that it was better to be feared than loved. By that standard, the United States is doing rather well. Alas, this is not a formula for winning a war against terrorism and the spread of dangerous weapons. We need allies who will want to help not because we scare them but because they share our values.

This will require leadership that values the role of diplomacy and doesn't scoff at international law. It will take ambassadors who do not cower behind barricades in their embassies but instead engage in the arena of ideas and values. It will require filling the vacant State Department job for public diplomacy with a competent person who actually believes in the mission. It will require leaders who display a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.

It was the appeal of America's values -- and the vision of statesmen like Jefferson and Franklin who were willing to engage in a war of ideas -- that won us independence. Likewise, it was the appeal of America's values -- and the vision of wise leaders who were willing to engage in a war of ideas -- that assured victory over communism in the cold war. Both of those generations realized that ideas had power which would prove stronger than our weapons. Now we are losing the war of ideas and ideals around the world.

This failure would dismay the founders, for they knew the power of those self-evident truths that they proclaimed 228 years ago: that people are entitled to liberty and that their rights should be guaranteed by a government whose legitimacy comes from their consent. These were inspiring ideals then, and they remain so today. The founders had the pride to realize that they could enlist legions to this noble cause. But they also had the humility to realize that this required a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.

Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, is the author of "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life."

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