The Declaration of Independence as a literary work
The Declaration of Independence is a powerful literary work in its own right (as well as a bearer of a powerful and new political message). As a literary work, however, it faced a threat of obscurity, of being forgotten and getting out of fashion. This did not happen, though, and in fact The Declaration of Independence is just as prominent and popular in the US as it was centuries before, when it was written. Consequently, this essay will use examples of literary criticism that regards The Independence, albeit to a point, to explain this literary phenomenon
Frederick Douglass was once an Afro-American slave who had escaped from bondage and fled to the north (Abolitionist) states. To him, the word `independence' meant a literal opposite to slavery, or `dependence' upon others in regards to his own continuing existence. Moreover, he did not hide the fact, and in his brief speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, he freely discussed this state of affairs.
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans? (...) How should I look to-day in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom, speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively? To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding.
(What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?, pg. 990)
Frederick Douglass runs a clear parallel between the enslavement of the original colonists by the English and of the enslavement of his fellow Afro-Americans in the American South. To him, the freedom-independence of The Declaration is clearly incomplete, as it apparently excludes the American slaves (as well as any other people of non-European descent). In his speech, he says and writes it down clearly, and does his best to have the Anglo-Americans in the US North to rise against the South and complete that oversight. To him, the descendants of the people who had written The Declaration in the first place have become complacent, increasingly political, not-quite-worthy of their great ancestry - at the expense of the others.
For his part, Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel The Scarlet Letter talked about the American past, about the lives of the Puritans, the first American settlers (as he perceived them to be, anyway). However, just like Douglass, he too talks about the American society and its relationship to the independence that it had declared, once upon a time. The Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is hypocritical and oppressive, as the following lines show in the second chapter:
Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the white man's fire-water had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest.
(The Scarlet Letter, pg 39-40)
Straight away, Hawthorne sends a supposedly conflicted message: all of the atrocities mentioned there have supposedly took place in the past, namely the physical abuse of bond-servants, or religious deviants, or even native Americans; however, as someone like William Apess could testify, native Americans were mistreated even in the 19th century, wage labour (the bond-servants and the like) was almost as big an issue in the North as slavery was in the South, punishments of the bond-servants were a common enough occurrence. Therefore, Hawthorne was actually engaging his readers in a part-time social satire of their contemporary society, and that satire was almost as blunt as Douglass' approach.
Yet, both people did believe in The Declaration - after all, without it, there would never have been any alternative to the slavery of Douglass' people, while in Hawthorne's novel Hester Prynne eventually makes peace with the rest of the community, and even becomes an important and revered person her own right. Therefore, their `problem' with The Declaration is not with it at all, but with people, as it was already indicated above.
The Declaration of Independence was, and is actually, a landmark not just in literary history, but in the literal one too, and the Americans can be justly proud of it, but it comes with a hefty price - they have to uphold it (even nowadays) and when they fail to do so, this 'prestige' goes into an opposite direction and becomes a source of shame instead, with people like Frederic Douglass or Nathaniel Hawthorne helpfully pointing this fact out.
Yet, The Declaration of Independence makes (even nowadays) the Americans works hard at keeping it alive, to keep it in current usage, and that is the greatest status that a piece of literature can ever hope to achieve.
Douglass, Frederick. "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July" 1852, 1855. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003. Pg. 990.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961, 1962.