Book Review: The Declaration of Independence: A Global History by David Armitage

The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007) by David Armitage takes a different approach to studying the Declaration of Independence of the United States by showing how it’s been received around the world and how it’s affected history and politics globally since it’s publication.  Even Americans need a review of what exactly the Declaration of Independence is, and Armitage sums it up in three parts: 1) a statement of the world of independency of the American states, 2) a summary of the offenses by the King of Great Britain that lead to this break, and 3) a statement of political philosopy on the rights of human beings.

Modern Americans remember the Declaration for the latter, but is the first two parts that were important at the time.  Governments around the world had to decide whether to recognize the United States and for many declaring independence was not enough, but force of arms prevailed on opinions.  Others attacked the notions of the rights of men in the Declaration, most notably Jeremy Bentham whose interesting questions regarding how something can’t be self-evident just because one says so is included in a complete republication in the book’s appendix.

The Declaration would also influence the independency of future nations with a declaration of independence an important part in their creation whether the country was born in revolution or peacefully ceded.  These often cribbed words and structure straight from the US Declaration, most strikingly in the 1945 Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam written by Ho Chi Minh.  Other declarations are different in their goals.  Armitage makes the comparison of how the US Declaration speaks of continued friendship with British bretheren, while the Haitian Declaration makes a point of stating eternal hatred to the French.  Perhaps that’s the effect of really being enslaved instead of using slavery as a political analogy.

Armitage has written an interesting book from an unique perspective.  It’s a quick read even if at times it appears to be a doctoral thesis or maybe a long research paper.  The appendix includes a number of worldwide Declarations of Independence in their full-text from 1776 to the present day.

Armitage, David, 1965-
The declaration of independence : a global history / David Armitage.
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2007.
vi, 300 p. ; 19 cm

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Declaration of Independence: A Global History by David Armitage

  1. Thanks for writing the review. I find it a good summary, although I would not characterize it as resembling a doctoral thesis. Indeed, my biggest problem with it is the way that it differs most from doctoral theses: it contains no real discussion of the theoretical or ground-breaking work on nationalism. As a work describing a key elements of nation-building, Armitage’s work seems naive in comparison to more thorough and more rigorous analyses of this topic, such as by Benedict Anderson or Partha Chatterjee. He takes the claims of the Declaration essentially at face value, without a solid discussion of the very real relations of power built into the very language. These relations of power function on both the level of social groups within the colonies, and among states, revealing the way that certain social relationships, such as patriarchy or capitalism, are reproduced and reinforced by the system of sovereign states. So, yes, we are “free” citizens, but only free if we qualify for political citizenship, and even then only free within the constraints of a global system of states.


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