On July 4, people all across these United States of America shoot off fireworks, grill meat and march in patriotic parades to celebrate the “birth of a nation.” But that’s not at all what happened on July 4, 1776. A singular “nation” in the modern sense was not born. In fact, that date marked the birth of 13 sovereign independent nations, as the Declaration of Independence makes clear.
Most Americans are familiar with the Declaration of Independence – or at least the first few paragraphs. Students learn many of the opening lines in school.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In the first several paragraphs of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson laid out important foundational principles. After establishing the source of our rights, he asserted that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed.”
He also declared that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Indeed, the Declaration of Independence is a secession document.
Most people don’t read past these fundamental principles. They set the document aside once they get to the list of grievances against England. But by failing to read to the end, they miss the key truth of the Declaration. It’s a little like eating your side-dish and leaving the main course.
Because while the principles Jefferson articulated create a philosophical foundation for Independence, they didn’t actually do anything. You don’t get to the operative and binding section of the declaration until the final paragraph.
It is here that we find the colonists had no intention of birthing “a nation.” The Declaration birthed 13 “free and independent” states.
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” [Emphasis added]
Note that it doesn’t read free and independent “state” – singular. Jefferson wrote “states” – plural.
The colonies declared their independence from Great Britain as individual sovereign political societies, each with the power to do all things “which independent States may of right do.” Each existed as a separate nation – think France, Great Britain, Virginia, New York. Great Britain affirmed this at the end of the war, recognizing the 13 sovereign states in the Treaty of Paris and naming them each individually.
And while the states were united in their act of declaring independence they never relinquished their sovereign individuality. It wasn’t until the states ratified the Articles of Confederation that they were formally united, and even then, the Articles specifically affirmed the sovereignty of the states.
“Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
The idea that July 4, 1776, birthed a nation makes up part of a broader narrative asserting that the United States is “one nation.” The Pledge of Allegiance encapsulates this view – “One nation…indivisible.”
But this narrative is a myth. The colonies declared independence as sovereign states. They ratified the Articles of Confederation as sovereign states. And they ratified the Constitution as sovereign states. They never ceded their sovereignty. To this day, the United States are a union of sovereign political societies.
Independence Day testifies to this truth.
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