Power  /  Comparison

Why Americans Love To Declare Independence

The 1776 Declaration was only the first. What we learn from the long history of splinter constitutions, manifestos, and secessions that followed.
Library of Congress

On the Fourth of July, Americans celebrate the moment when our forefathers “dissolved the political bonds” between the 13 Colonies and Great Britain—cutting themselves free of a ruler thousands of miles away, and asserting their right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness under a new form of government.

Today, we see this as a watershed in our grand civic narrative: a break in historical time that ended one chapter of the story and began another. But to see their claim to liberty as a unique moment in our history would be an error. In fact, once Americans declared independence, they never really stopped. Since the founding era, dozens of groups have taken the message to heart and asserted the right to self-rule, again and again.

Not long after the birth of the Republic, settlers living in the wilderness of modern New Hampshire tried to split off into their own nation, writing a constitution to protect their subsistence lifestyle from callous tax collectors and elected officials. In the 19th century, immigrants from France created a socialist utopia in the Midwest, where they pooled resources and renounced unbridled capitalism. Today, the most disaffected radicals might be members of the Aryan movement, who hope to dethrone multiculturalism by forming an all-white republic in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of these breakaway groups were genuinely alienated from the mainstream; some were morally visionary, and crafted principles that were eventually absorbed into American law—even the Constitution itself. But all saw themselves, like the Founders, as bravely asserting their right to rule themselves. And their efforts, seen against our full national history, speak of an unquenchable desire to improve the American bargain by rethinking it, identifying ways it doesn’t work, and trying, just as the Founders did, to reimagine something better.