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Issues within the DOI: What isn’t taught in middle school history class

Jacques Derrida’s “Declarations of Independence” calls one of the most well-known and accepted historic documents, the Declaration of Independence, into question. In Derrida’s piece, he critiques and discusses overlooked flaws within the DOI. One of these flaws being whether the DOI is truly representative of the People. The word “We” is used over and over again throughout the document, but who exactly is We? When I had first read the DOI, I assumed that this “We” meant that it was a consensual declaration, inclusive of the People and the government. However, reading it now, I am questioning if that is true.

 At the beginning of the document, it seems more inclusive, they are using We in a way that might make one believe these really are the feelings and wants of everyone. The beginning of the DOI includes the phrase, “one people” which adds to this feeling of inclusiveness. However, towards the end of the document, it becomes a different type of We; a We that only includes Congress. For example, the start of the last paragraph of the DOI states, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled…” The We in this section is defined as solely being the Representatives of the United States of America, who are writing on behalf of the People. Derrida describes this exclusiveness by stating “They speak, declare themselves and sign in the name of…” (Derrida pg 9). This creates a feeling of distance between the People and the government, and makes me wonder if the DOI can really be considered a legitimate and even legal document at all. 

Derrida voices in his piece that the power lies in the signature, but since it is only signed by members of state congress, can it really be considered a document for and by the People? Derrida also calls into question the idea of timing, “Is it the good people have already freed themselves in fact and are only stating the fact of this emancipation in [par] the declaration? Or is it rather that they free themselves at the instant of and by [par] the signature of this Declaration?” (pg 9). This is an interesting idea to consider, because the People were not sitting beside those composing and signing the DOI, so were they already considered free from Great Britain or awaiting this document to be released to be proclaimed free? I never really gave much thought to the issues Derrida raised, and just assumed that a document like the DOI would be flawless.

One thought on “Issues within the DOI: What isn’t taught in middle school history class”

  1. Great work identifying and exploring some of Derrida’s claims and interventions! As I mentioned in class, I do wonder whether reframing his approach as playful changes how we understand what he’s doing – I’m not sure he’s as intent on proving that the “we” of this document is a lie so much as he is suggesting that it’s best understood as a fiction, albeit a fiction that does work we might find important.


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