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RE-ESTABLISHED BY A. T. RICE AND LLOYD BRYCE.
EDITED BY DAVID A. MUNRO.
Tros Tyriusque mihi nullo discrimine agetur.
Copyright, 1896, by LLOYD BRYCE.
All rights reserved.
NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE IN THE
LIGHT OF MODERN CRITICISM.
BY MOSES COIT TYLER, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY IN CORNELL
I. It can hardly be doubted that some hindrance to a right estimate of the Declaration of Independence is occasioned by either of two opposite conditions of mind, both of which are often to be met with among us: on the one hand, a condition of hereditary, uncritical awe and worship of the American Revolution, and of that state paper as its absolutely perfect and glorious expression; on the other hand, a later condition of cultivated distrust of the Declaration, as a piece of writing lifted up into inordinate renown by the passionate and heroic circumstances of its origin, and ever since then extolled beyond reason by the blind energy of patriotic enthusiasm. Turning from the former state of mind, which obviously calls for no further comment, we may note, as a partial illustration of the latter, that American confidence in the supreme intellectual merit of this all-famous document received a serious wound some forty years ago from the hand of Rufus Choate, when, with a courage greater than would now be required for such an act, he characterized it as made up of “glittering and sounding generalities of natural VOL. CLXIII.-N0. 476. 1
Copyright, 1896, by LLOYD BBYCE, All rights reserved,
What the great advocate then so unhesitatingly suggested, many a thoughtful American since then has at least suspected - that our great proclamation, as a piece of political literature, cannot stand the test of modern analysis; that it belongs to the immense class of over-praised productions ; that it is, in fact, a stately patchwork of sweeping propositions of somewhat doubtful validity; that it has long imposed upon mankind by the well-known effectiveness of verbal glitter and sound; that, at the best, it is an example of florid political declamation belonging to the sophomoric period of our national life, a period which, as we flatter ourselves, we have now outgrown.
Nevertheless, it is to be noted that whatever authority the Declaration of Independence has acquired in the world, has been due to no lack of criticism, either at the time of its first appearance, or since then; a fact which seems to tell in favor of its essential worth and strength. From the date of its original publication down to the present moment, it has been attacked again and again, either in anger, or in contempt, by friends as well as by enemies of the American Revolution, by liberals in politics as well as by conservatives. It has been censured for its substance, it has been censured for its form, for its misstatements of fact, for its fallacies in reasoning, for its audacious novelties and paradoxes, for its total lack of all novelty, for its repetition of old and thread bare statements, even for its downright plagiarisms; finally, for its grandiose and vaporing style.
One of the earliest and ablest of its assailants was Thomas Hutchinson, the last civil governor of the colony of Massachusetts, who, being stranded in London by the political storm which had blown him thither, published there, in the autumn of 1976, his “Strictures Upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia,”! wherein, with an unsurpassed knowledge of the origin of the controversy, and with an unsurpassed acumen in the discussion of it, he traverses the entire document, paragraph by paragraph, for the purpose of showing that its allegations in support of American Independence are “false and frivolous."
* Letter of Rufus Choate to the Whigs of Maine, 1856.
A better-written, and, upon the whole, a more plausible and a more powerful, arraignment of the great Declaration was the celebrated pamphlet by Sir John Dalrymple, “The Rights of Great Britain Asserted against the Claims of America : Being an Answer to the Declaration of the General Congress,”-a pamphlet scattered broadcast over the world at such a rate that at least eight editions of it were published during the last three or four months of the year 1776. Here, again, the manifesto of Congress is subjected to a searching examination, in order to prove that “the facts are either wilfully or ignorantly misrepresented, and the arguments deduced from premises that have no foundation in truth."* It is doubtful if any disinterested student of history, any competent judge of reasoning, will now deny to this pamphlet the praise of making out a very strong case against the historical accuracy and the logical soundness of many parts of the Declaration of Independence.
Undoubtedly, the force of such censures is for as much broken by the fact that they proceeded from men who were themselves partisans in the Revolutionary controversy, and bitterly hostile to the whole movement which the Declaration was intended to justify. Such is not the case, however, with the leading modern English critics of the same document, who, while blaming in severe terms the policy of the British Government toward the Thirteen Colonies, have also found much to abate from the confidence due to this official announcement of the reasons for our secession from the empire. For example, Earl Russell, after frankly saying that the great disruption proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence was a result which Great Britain had “used every means most fitted to bring about,” such as “ vacillation in council, harshness in language, feebleness in execution, disregard of American sympathies and affections,” also pointed out that "the truth of this memorable Declaration"
warped” by “one singular defect," namely, its exclusive and excessive arraignment of George the Third “ as a single and despotic tyrant,” much like Philip the Second to the people of the Netherlands.t
This temperate criticism from an able and a liberal English
• " The Rights," etc., 1-2. The copy used by me is the seventh edition, Lon. don, 1776.
Lord John Russell, “Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox," 1., 151-152.