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.
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.
The American impulse to re-declare independence—often writing entire new constitutions along the way—is far less celebrated than the civic tale we will tell next weekend. But it’s also central to our national experiment. To look at this long and varied history is to appreciate how the indomitable spirit that surfaced in 1776 has survived—and how the country itself has thrived by encouraging that tendency, sometimes suppressing it, and often folding in the independent spirit of renegades as part of the nation’s own.
The Declaration of Independence played a pivotal role in how we think of citizenship: It claimed that people have a basic natural right to rewrite the rules of their own government. The success of the Revolutionary War, and of the 1787 Constitution, established the United States as a stable nation. Popular uprisings around the world enshrined popular sovereignty as a global principle. One echo soon afterward was the French Revolution in 1789; another was the Haitian Revolution of 1802.
Revolutionary change also continued within the United States itself. In the far north of New Hampshire, settlers began to feel wronged by both state officials and Canadian figures, each of whom made a legal claim on the territory. Their solution: establish a breakaway nation, the Republic of Indian Stream. Their 1832 Constitution created new institutions that would govern this micro-state. They based their government on the New England township model, with an elected council and assembly; they empowered local officials to resist tax collectors and representatives from other jurisdictions. When sued in New Hampshire courts, citizens of Indian Stream claimed that outside judges had no jurisdiction over them.
The experiment did not last long. In 1835 the governor of New Hampshire sent in the state militia to secure, by force, the allegiance of local inhabitants, and the brief Indian Stream experiment was over. But the episode represented something that would recur in the new nation: a cycle in which pioneers would rush to break existing rules and blur legal boundaries; the powers that be would briefly look the other way as settlers worked the land under their own principles; and eventually some of this lawbreaking would be ratified after the fact. For federal and state governments, Indian Stream was essentially a lesson in how to harness the people’s exuberance for state-building purposes. In the future, just as New Hampshire did, public officials would step in and forcefully reassert the rule of law when the people’s independent streak went too far.
Indian Stream arose from a territorial dispute, but other Americans have made their stand purely on moral principle. In 1859, John Brown, the radical abolitionist from Ohio, penned a “declaration of liberty” modeled on the original Declaration of Independence. Writing on behalf of “the oppressed citizens of the slave states,” Brown denounced the US Supreme Court for deciding that slaves could never become American citizens, and called slaveholders and their political friends tyrants, thieves, and pirates—hostile to both divine law and the law of nations.
Tracing the Founding Fathers’ example, Brown followed that up with a constitutional convention in Chatham, Canada, which brought together freedmen and abolitionists to reimagine their political future. That gathering produced a document he hoped would displace the 1787 Constitution, revitalize the bonds of political fellowship, and at last rid the country of the scourge of slavery. Brown and his men carried that constitution with them to Harpers Ferry, where their failed assault on a federal armory ended their political movement.
Today, most Americans learn about Brown’s violent insurrection and execution, but not how faithfully he tried to follow the Founders’ own blueprints for founding a new nation. No one would credit Brown for anything more than reigniting the debate over slavery, but it is worth noting that the vision he created eventually made it into the Constitution itself: an integrated American citizenry, marked neither by race nor former condition of servitude.
It was the Civil War that offered the most famous, and disruptive, instance of the revolutionary spirit. The architects of the Confederate States of America, like John Brown and his followers, emulated the Founding Fathers. Not only did citizens of slaveholding states declare independence from the government in Washington, they also did it in a rolling fashion to create maximum publicity and momentum. Starting with South Carolina in December 1860, a succession of state conventions publicly announced their reasons for seceding from the Union and detailed their irreconcilable differences with the national government. Delegates met in Montgomery, Ala., to form a new constitution, one that honed regional complaints into a plan to preserve a slave-based political economy by breaking off as an independent nation.
At this scale, a rival constitution represented something much more than an inoffensive gesture: The Confederate order threatened the security of the remaining states and the overriding dream of America. More than 600,000 citizens—far more than in the Revolution—died defending the idea of one American people. In the wake of the Civil War, compromise cloaked by legal ambiguity was over: The Constitution was amended to end slavery once and for all, reintegrating the rebels into the country on the victor’s terms.
No threat to national stability has since arisen on anywhere near that scale, but disaffection of many kinds has persisted. Disdain for capitalist excess led a group of French immigrants to write a new social compact in the mid-19th century: The Icarian Constitution of 1850, which repudiated radical individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, required everyone to work, and promised to meet the basic needs of each citizen. They convinced the State of Illinois to permit them to experiment with socialist practices, and for over 40 years, these Americans lived essentially as an independent nation within a nation. Generational disputes and clumsy transitions between leaders frayed the Icarians’ social compact, and ultimately led to the dissolution of the community.
In the later 20th century, race again became a flashpoint for independence movements. After the assassination of Malcolm X, his despondent followers organized a convention in Detroit, and in March 1968 published a declaration of independence that adapted the language of the 1776 Declaration for the ends of black liberation. The document announced that the “Black People of America” would “go a different way” by establishing an autonomous republic carved out of the Deep South states. Organizers later adopted a constitution, intending to renew urban life, reform the criminal justice system by abolishing prosecutors and the death penalty, and implement cooperative economic theories learned from newly independent black countries in Africa. Though the New Afrikan movement fizzled after shoot-outs with police tarnished its reputation, some of its leaders went on to become educators, elected officials, and influential participants in the push for black reparations.
If declarations are, in part, a barometer of where discontent lurks, then the recent grievances of racially conscious white Americans might be the clearest sign of how far we have come as a country. Richard Grint Butler, who made headlines as the leader of the Aryan Nations in Hayden Lake, Idaho, published a declaration of independence in 1996 on behalf of “the Aryan people of America.” That document signaled that the “patient suffering” of white people under multiculturalism and integration had reached a boiling point. No longer would they tolerate the federal government trying to eradicate Aryan culture and diminish white influence in politics. The manifesto not only declared white Americans absolved of allegiance to the 1787 Constitution, but it also affirmed the goal of restoring white self-governance. In their ideas, many white separatists depart from the Founders’ original plan for governance, but in their tactics, ironically, they turned to the same quintessentially American models of legal resistance used by both the founders and their adversaries on the left—black separatists, Indian nationalists, and radical abolitionists.
Whether a particular group ultimately succeeds or fails—and however distasteful or disruptive their stated aims—Americans’ propensity to declare independence has many salutary consequences for the legal order as a whole. In any political system, moments will arise when the government’s priorities meaningfully diverge from those of its people. It is a mark of strength, not weakness, that our political tradition makes room for creative and sometimes unorthodox actions to repair this breach.
By studying such episodes, we can discover some of the most intense, and occasionally pervasive, critiques of American law. For example, independence documents over the years reveal deep dissatisfaction over the scope of property rights, the balance between national citizenship and identity politics, and the proper role for judges in a democracy. Mainstream politicians do well to pay attention to these grievances, even if they choose not to adopt them as their own.
Of course, there are drawbacks to Americans’ maverick streak. The notion that a group of citizens can claim to speak on behalf of all or most Americans is destabilizing—as is the idea that sometimes the best way to improve on our political system is to start from scratch. But the revolutionary spirit can also be constructive, and in some cases separatists’ ideas have ultimately helped reshape American law, even if their actual independence efforts failed. When leaders of the major native American tribes living in Indian Territory met and wrote a constitution for their planned State of Sequoyah in 1905, they captured inhabitants’ grievances so perfectly that their plan subsequently became the model for Oklahoma’s constitution. The Indian-led independence movement spurred the creation of lasting government institutions and revitalized local politics.
If there is one lesson to be learned this Fourth of July, it is that the story of America is not that of a single revolution, but of a powerful revolutionary impulse that can never be quashed. The triumph of the Founders’ achievement isn’t that it happened once, and ended: It’s that it led to a system that has survived, even fostered, 230 years of challenges to its authority. For the rest of the world, the American legacy has not been the substance of the Constitution, which has so often been rejected, but rather the model of revolutionary action that it provides. To see history this way is also to understand that the law is not given or inalterable, but rather shaped by human hands—or, more accurately, a hand grasping a pen.
Robert L. Tsai is a professor of law at American University and the author of “America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community” (Harvard 2014).