To Alter or Abolish
29 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2016
Date Written: April 9, 2016
For most Americans, at least, the most famous part of the Declaration of Independence is its claim that "all men are created equal," and endowed with "certain unalienable rights." But around the world, the Declaration's assertion of the right of "the People" to alter or to abolish government -- and to declare independence -- has been far more influential. During the Civil War, the South relied precisely on this right as its justification for secession. As a result, Americans have tended to downplay these aspects of the Declaration. But in other parts of the world, the Declaration continues to inspire countless movements for revolution, self-determination, and secession.
There are any number of books and essays that call upon us to take the Declaration's language seriously -- which usually means taking seriously its inspiring passages about human equality and inalienable human rights. This essay asks what it would mean to take seriously the other parts of the Declaration, and in particular, its assertion of the right of a self-defined "People" to alter or abolish government. Doing so turns out to create an enormous number of theoretical and practical problems, which have played out both in domestic and international politics from the Declaration's day to our own.
Keywords: Declaration of Independence, Civil War, Secession, Self-Determination, International Law, Woodrow Wilson
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation