To Alter or Abolish

29 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2016

See all articles by Jack M. Balkin

Jack M. Balkin

Yale University - Law School

Sanford Levinson

University of Texas Law School

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

Balkin, Jack M. and Levinson, Sanford V., To Alter or Abolish (April 9, 2016). Southern California Law Review, Vol. 89, 2016, Forthcoming, U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 654, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 569, Available at SSRN:

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)

Sanford V. Levinson

University of Texas Law School ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
512-471-3273 (Phone)

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