In hindsight, the historical context from which I analyzed the US Declaration of Independence is quite lacking in comparison to the literary perspective. The most prominent thing that I kept coming back to was the emptiness of the wording used. Phrases such as “one people,” all men are created equal,” and “powers from the consent of the governed.” I see all of these as merely a presentation; they do not truly represent the “one people” of the US. These were written down to provide a sense of unification, equality, and shared power — in reality they are far from that. This entire document is put on as a sort of act to show power in writing rather than in action. While this document was written and published no actions were made to ensure what was said was enforced. This declaration presents representation where there is none to be found.
Going back to the second phrase I quoted, “all men are created equal,” there enslaved West Africans who would have disagreed. Calling upon the erasure poem “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith, there is a line from this poem that reads “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. –taked Captive — on the high Seas — to bear–” (Smith). The irony being that this is the exact words of the Declaration the founding fathers wrote. Yet they could not see that they too were the same as they they enslaved. In my opinion, it was an insult to write such a phrase as “all men are created equal” as a presentation to the world how just the US is, while in reality, when it comes time to represent what they wrote, such justice is merely spilled ink.
Smith, Tracy K. “Declaration.” Poetry Foundation, Graywolf Press, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147468/declaration-5b5a286052461.
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.
In history classes, in my personal experience, students have always been taught that the Declaration of Independence was written by the Founding Fathers in order to inform the British Monarchy, specifically King George, that the colonies intended to break away from British rule and form their own independent and free-standing country. For years students have accepted this synopsis as undisputable fact; however, the language of the document suggests various motives behind its creation.
The word choices in the first full paragraph seem to uphold the above theory of the Declaration’s creation, as the first sentence of the paragraph in reference reads, “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…” (DOI); this language, specifically in an opening sentence, does seem to imply that the purpose of this document is the establish the Colonists as citizens of a country that is no longer controlled by the Monarchy. In using the word “we”, the Founding Fathers established the Colonists as a group of people completely separated from the citizens of Britain, and as a governmental force under the control of no people but its own; the repeated use of words such as “they” and “their” throughout this paragraph also uphold this argument. Furthermore, the statement “…Right of the People…” (DOI) not only distinguishes the rights of the people in reference from those belonging to the people of Great Britain, but the capitalization of the word “People” turns this word into a proper noun referring only to a specific group.
The section of the document that causes me to begin questioning whether or not King George was this intended audience comes directly after the aforementioned paragraph. One would be under the impression that if the Declaration was written with King George as the intended audience, it would have been written in second person using the pronoun “you”; however, the word “you” does not appear in the Declaration at all. Furthermore, when the document begins to list King George’s “…history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” (DOI), the pronoun of choice is a repeated “he”, thus suggesting that the audience in mind for this document was not actually King George, but the other established nations of the world to create awareness and understanding behind the colonists reasons for revolutionizing.
After reading through this twice, I still find Derrida’s, Declaration of Independence, I was still a little confused about some of his topics, but I feel like I got a pretty good grasp of some of his points. In Derrida’s text, he makes two good points about the signers of the Declaration that kind of link together into one bigger idea. This is the idea of representation, who is supposed to be representing who in this document.
In his text, to me, it seems that he has a problem with the concept of who each of the signers of the Declaration are supposed to be representing. It is pretty much common knowledge that each of the signers are supposed to represent the people of the state in which they sign under. But Derrida seems to be digging deeper into the idea that they aren’t necessarily representing the people, and that they are representing themselves and adding the people to their already decided ideas. (pg. 3) Which, if you give it thought, is kind of what happened.
Later on, on that same page in the next paragraph, he brings up the idea and questions whether the people who signed the document were already free or if they were being declared free at the same time as everyone they are representing through this document. This is an interesting idea because I personally have never given it much thought and never paid much attention in history classes to know if this was ever discussed, but it is interesting that he brings this up.
Tying that idea that the representatives were already free back to the idea of representation, adds to the idea that them deciding the contents of the Declaration were written to adhere to the wants and needs of the “representatives” and that they adjusted their ideas to make sure the people would be satisfied and not argue or disagree much with what they already decided.
In Derrida’s “Declarations of Independence,” he discusses on what basis the signature of the DOI becomes a legitimate manner to both express and in this expression, enact independence. I think his process of declaration can also be applied to the rights stated in the DOI, which Armitage implies in “The Declaration of Independence and International Law,” had yet to be formally recognized by an established government even though they had little bearing on the act of gaining independence.
Derrida addresses the rights stated in the DOI and argues that it is one reason which compelled the signers to declare independence. He writes, “… they should declare the causes which impel them to separation: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable Rights …(Derrida 11),” specifically of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (DOI),” which are infringed upon. While these may be “self-evident,” it wasn’t to Britain at the time, aligning these rights alongside independence; although the states “are” already independent, it is not till the declaration of this independence that it becomes true – the same can be said about these rights. The signature grants itself recognition of these rights which it intrinsically has but is not recognized, and furthermore is more legitimate in its justification to sign because it has them and recognizes them by creating a state that does so upon signing.
However, as Armitage points out, this assertion was “strictly subordinate (44),” as one of many justifications for separation, leading to the question its presence. Because these rights are new in terms of their formal recognition (distinct from and not yet, legally protected) it can be assumed as Armitage asserts that their presence is for future use. For a government looking to eventually protect these “self-evident rights” these rights must be evident since the moment of formation, making their appearance important in the DOI. Given this, the signers had to call on a higher power than the British Crown to grant these rights legitimacy in the declaration, stating “the Creator” has endowed them (DOI). This section of the DOI therefore links these rights with God as a manner to unify and appeal to common beliefs, although this intertwinement may later seem contradictory when granting these rights legal protection in what will be a secular state.
Throughout Jacques Derrida’s abundantly technical Declarations of Independence, he forces readers to question the legitimacy of the historic American document The Declaration of Independence. Embedded in Derrida’s work, there stands a fine line between what exactly constitutes physical and emotional freedom and the act of stating that oneself is now separated from the governing entity. This line is evidently blurred. Derrida expresses confusion at two major points in The Declaration of Independence, first of them being who is the final signer at the end of the document. It is not Thomas Jefferson, as he was the writer, nor is it the representatives alone, it is the representatives signing for the people, “It is the ‘good people’ who declare themselves free and independent by the relay of their representatives and of their representatives of representatives” (Derrida 9). This line illuminates that the people, even though the entirety of the population’s signature is represented by only a few people, are the ones who have ultimately declared themselves independent. This is where the lines become blurred for Derrida. He believes the independence that has been declared only stands true in the legitimacy of the signature; however, the people who were signed for did not contribute to The Declaration of Independence nor can unknown or silent views and opinions be taken as a vote on the side of what the most powerful want. Since the power stands in the signature, according to Derrida, is the American independence valid? Another prominent issue that arises is the act of declaring one’s own independence, “Is it that the good people have already freed themselves in fact and are only stating the fact of this emancipation in the Declaration? Or is it rather that they free themselves at the instant of and by the signature of this Declaration?”(Derrida 9). Derrida is questioning the occurrence of stating independence, is the sought after independence finally grasped within the people’s hands and The Declaration of Independence seen as an acknowledgement that they are, in fact, independent or is the writing and the signature of The Declaration of Independence the first moment that they are declaring freedom. Since the people were never given the chance for an honest vote, Derrida is stating that the representatives writing this for the people, in their name, without the consent of the people, is overall invalid.