Norfolk, January 4, 1833.

The Declaration of Independence uttered in 1776, was considered, at that day, as the most important act which had every occurred in this Country, and subsequent time has not weakened the sentiment it was then intended to inculcate.

We will continue to commemorate it annually, on the day of its date, when all the citizens of these now United States, join with one accord, in humble adoration and joyful thanksgiving to that Divine Providence, under whose protection, the great truths it announces were afterwards maintained and established.

But if the effect of this Declaration, was to consolidate all the then Colonies, by whose representatives it was made, as one nation, and to amalgamate their inhabitants into "One People," the Fourth day of July, instead of being celebrated as a Jubilee, would probably be spent much more appropriately in weeping and in wailing. Was such the true nature and intended effect of this Declaration? This is the question I propose now to examine.

In speaking of this Declaration, the President says in his Proclamation, "that decisive and important step was taken jointly—we declared ourselves a Nation by joint, not be several acts." It is obvious from this passage, that its author designed to establish the existence of a Nation, not less by the manner in which this Declaration was made, than by the actual assertions of the instrument itself: for not satisfied with stating that this step was taken jointly, he adds, that by such a joint act we declared ourselves a Nation. I will examine into the truth of all these assertions, before I give my own views of the subject.

A joint act, ex vi termini, implies the co-operation of several agents, by whose united and joined agencies it has been produced. Hence, it would be a very great solecism, to speak of any act done by one agent only, as a joint act; and therefore, no corporate act is ever properly described, as a joint act of a Corporation, even when such a body is composed of many members: for although the members may be many, the Corporation is but one, and the act, if a corporate act, must be performed by that one body only. It is not every act effected by the co-operation of several agents, however, that is properly termed a joint act. Because, although considered in reference to the number of its authors, every single act accomplished by the co-operation of several agents, must be their joint act, yet considered in reference to its intended effects, as these may be many, and attach to all, to each, or to some only of its agents, the act is referred as either joint or several, according to the nature of these intended effects. But as the intent of the act, cannot possible be inferred from the number of agents co-operating to its accomplishment, while it is admitted, that several as well as joint effects may and do result even from a joint act, the nature of such an act can only be ascertained from the intention of the agents. This intention must always be sought for, and generally, is best manifested, in the declarations of the agents employed to perform the act, especially when these declarations are uttered in the act itself, and of course at the time of performing it. If these plain propositions, which every Tyro has hitherto acknowledged to be true, are still admitted to be correct, it will be found difficult certainly, nay impossible probably, to reconcile them with the assertions of the President, when the effect intended to be produced by these assertions is remembered. The object in view in making these assertions is to prove thereby, that by virtue of the Declaration of Independence we acknowledged ourselves to be one Nation. Hence, the President says "that decisive and important step was taken jointly." Now if by this he means to say, merely, that this declaration was the work of many persons co-operating to produce it, no matter in what character they acted, he asserts a fact so unimportant to his purpose, and so familiar to every one, that it really seems almost ludicrous to utter it with such apparent gravity, if indeed it was necessary to state it at all.

But if means to be understood, as asserting that this declaration was the joint act of the representatives of any single body, previously known as a Community or Nation, besides the historical error committed, he states what must be unintelligible to all, except to those who can comprehend how any single body can do any joint act.

I should have been disposed to consider this sentence as a mere inaccuracy, caused by the precipitate haste in which this State paper was probably prepared, and therefore, to have passed it by unnoticed, but that it is in exact keeping with all the previous parts of this argument, and moreover, is in substance repeated more impressively, in the next sentence, wherein it is said, that "we declared ourselves a Nation by a joint, not by several acts." Now, if we were a Nation before the Declaration of Independence was uttered, (as it was the purpose of all the previous parts of this argument to prove,) it would have been impossible for us as a Nation, to proclaim this fact by any joint act: and if before that event occurred, we were not a Nation, but separate communities or individuals, it seems difficult to conceive how we (whether the Colonies or Colonists) could have declared ourselves as a Nation, by any other than several acts.

The reason of all this mystification and apparent absurdity, will be obvious, when we come to consider the declarations actually made in the Declaration of Independence itself. We shall then find, that this instrument, instead of proclaiming the Colonies to be one Nation, declared them to be "free and independent States," in terms. Hence, as it was impossible to infer the existence of one nation from such terms, in which this idea is so plainly and positively negatived, resort was had to the manner in which this declaration was made; and we are told, "that decisive and important step was taken jointly," and that "we declared ourselves a Nation by a joint, not be several acts"—as if the plain and obvious meaning of the act itself, could be changed by any such extrinsic circumstances.

I have now done with this part of the argument of the President, the design of which is to show, that these States never were sovereign, in showing that they constituted but parts of another sovereignty called the Nation.

I will now proceed to give my account of the Declaration of Independence; and therein to state my ideas of its effects upon the several Colonies, who, by their representatives, were parties to that instrument.

The true nature and intended effects of the Declaration, can never be understood, from a consideration of the manner in which it was executed, merely.

Whether it was produced by the agency of one, only, or by the joint agency of many, or by the several agencies of different persons co-operating to the same end, is of little consequence. Its object and intended effects must be inferred from its language, although if that is ambiguous, these may very properly be sought for in extraneous circumstances of any kind, whether these circumstances are found in the manner of the execution of the instrument, or in anything else.

Let us then, turn to the act itself, and judge from its contents, of its end and object, before we attempt to discover these last in any other way.

When so examined, the Declaration of Independence seems to be a manifesto, addressed to the world, that is to say, to the civilized world, designed to inform it of the pre-existence of a new event interesting to humanity, and of the causes and circumstances which had occasioned the occurrence of this new fact. Like the manifesto that generally accompanies or immediately follows every modern Declaration of War, which, in announcing the new relations of the belligerents, and narrating how these have been produced, it so contains an implied appeal to other States, and to posterity, for the justifications of those by whom this new state of things has been made necessary. Considered in this light, it asserts nothing but what had previously existed, although but recently; and its object is confined to the justification of that pre-existing state of things which it so announces. If this was its purpose, it cannot be considered as creating any new community, as ordaining any new government, or bestowing any new name; but as intended merely to announce the new condition in which former societies, under existing governments and names previously known, are placed. Its sole end, is to justify to others that new condition which has been recently assumed by those who utter the manifesto.

Whether this notion of the Declaration of Independence be correct, must depend, mainly, upon its own language. Let me, then, examine what this is.

It commences by saying, that "when, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires, that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." Here, then, confessedly, is an appeal to mankind, induced by the decent respect due to their opinions, designed to inform them of the fact of the dissolution of the political bands which had previously connected those making this appeal, with some other community. Immediately following this introduction, comes the intended justification of this act.

This consists of two parts: the assertion of certain general propositions, which the authors of this manifesto or appeal held to be self-evident, requiring no proof to establish them; and the application of these general and self-evident truths to the particular notorious historical facts existing in their case, which facts are concisely narrated. The general truths here announced, are those proclaimed in the Declaration of Rights previously promulgated in Virginia, some of which I have stated in a former number. They are, in brief, these:

That all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among which are the rights to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of their happiness. That to secure these inalienable rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.—That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.—That, although these things are true, yet prudence dictates, that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.—But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Having thus shewn the clear right and solemn duty to do the act, the performance of which they had announced, namely, the dissolution of the political bands that had formerly connected the authors of this manifesto, and their respective constituents, with another government; provided, such a long train of abuses and usurpations on the part of this other government, as they had referred to, existed, the Declaration next proceeds to set forth what were the abuses and usurpations, the previous occurrence of which would give point and special application to their asserted self-evident truths, and so justify that act.

The catalogue of these abuses and usurpations need not be repeated here.

All men must admit, that if the facts stated therein were true, as stated, and if the general propositions affirmed were correct as affirmed, they made together a perfect demonstration of that which they were intended to establish, that is to say, of the right to throw off the government of Great Britain, by which government these abuses and usurpations had been practised. But not content with this clear demonstration of a strict right, the authors of the Declaration go on to state further:

That in every stage of these oppressions, they had petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; but that their repeated petitions had been answered only be repeated injuries. That they had also appealed to the native justice and magnanimity of their British brethren, conjuring them, by the ties of common kindred, to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt their connexions and correspondence; but that they, too, had been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity—Wherefore, they were bound to acquiesce in the necessity which denounced their separation, and to hold them, as they held the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

For all these reasons, the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of their intentions, did, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these Colonies, their respective Constituents, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies, were, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States—That they were absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connexion between them and the State of Great Britain, was, and ought to be, totally dissolved—And that as Free and Independent States, they had full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States might of right do.

This is a full and faithful abstract, of everything contained in the Declaration of Independence, which any man can consider as important or applicable to the question now under examination. For the truth of this assertion, I refer to the Declaration itself, happily, now in the hands of almost every freeman in this country—I appeal then, confidently, to every candid mind, to determine, whether there is one word uttered, or one thought expressed, or even implied, throughout the whole of this important, clear and able State paper, to countenance the idea, that it could have been designed by its Authors, to incorporate the Several Communities therein for the First time Styled the United States of America, into one Nation? Whether it does not affirm, in terms, that the Colonies represented in the Congress which produced this act, were, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States—And whether it could have had any other end or aim than what I have stated, that is to say, to declare and make manifest to the world, what was the condition of these States; and in tracing the causes which had produced this condition, to justify before the world the position they had already assumed.

I ask of the Constitutional Lawyer, to tell me, whether any act, professing as this does, to be declaratory of what is, and of right ought to be, can properly be considered as an instrument ordaining the existence of that which it declares, merely.—I ask of any Politician, even of the new school, to tell me, in frankness, whether, at that time, the delegates of any Colony, assembled in a general Congress, could have had any authority to extinguish the rights of their Constituents, by amalgamating them with others, into one Nation, except under their credentials and instructions.—Should he say, as speaking in that spirit, he must say, that they could not have had authority derived from any other source, I then refer to these credentials and instructions, to shew, that all of them contained expressed limitations upon the power of these delegates, by which they were prohibited from doing any such act.

It is not necessary to recite all these papers; a part of one only will suffice. The Provincial Congress of New Jersey, assembled at Burlington, on the 21st of June, 1776, empowered their delegates, to join with the delegates of the other Colonies, "in declaring the United Colonies independent of Great Britain, entering into a confederation for union and common defence, making Treaties with foreign nations for commerce and assistance, and to take such other measures as might appear to them and you necessary for these great ends; always observing that whatever plan of Confederacy you enter into, the regulating the internal police of this province, is to be reserved to the Colony Legislature."[1] Words containing a more explicit prohibition, against welding New Jersey with the other Colonies, or any of them, into one Nation, could not well have been employed; and yet the authority communicated to the delegates of New Jersey, by these instructions, was even greater than that possessed by the Representatives of many of the other Colonies. If the nature and intent of the Declaration of Independence, are such, as I have stated; it is of little consequence to inquire, whether that decisive and important step was taken by its authors, jointly or severally; or whether it deserves the name of a joint act, or of several acts; for let the act be done as it may, it was certainly done for the purposes it announces, and could not have been done for any such purpose as the President ascribes to it, namely, to declare the Colonies one Nation, or the Colonists one People.

In further proof of this, I will here remark, that during the very time the Declaration of Independence was under consideration, to wit, on the 11th June, 1776, Congress began to take the necessary measures for preparing "the form of a confederation to be entered into between these Colonies,"[2] which measure was perfected long after the Declaration of Independence was uttered.

This of itself contradicts the assertion, that we were then one Nation or one People. But I will postpone to another number, any remarks upon this second great act of our political history; and will conclude the present, by saying, that it results from all which has been stated, that the Sovereignty assumed by the several States, in the manner I have before shewn, so far from being annulled, was confirmed by the Declaration of Independence, which had no other object than to declare their Independence, and to demonstrate to the world, that this independence was their's of right.

  1. See Journals of the Old Congress, Vol. 2, pp. 224, 225.
  2. See Journals of the Old Congress, Vol. 2, page 297.