Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Global Declarations

Armitage, David. The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Harvard, 2007.

This book begins in a Skinnerean mode with the original contextual goals of the US Declaration of Independence. It then traces the effects of this prototype declaration of independence immediately and over the following centuries in a global context. This is done almost entirely by comparing the original US Declaration’s goals and form with the many that have followed. The main lesson is that the Declaration of Independence was a document of 18th century political philosophy above all in the sense that it makes reference to the natural rights of states. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence as a genre has generally been used as a tool of state-creation and the affirmation of sovereignty.

States here are mainly opposed to nations. Armitage, oddly, seems to regard most people before the 18th century as stateless—as though vast, decentralized empires were somehow not states. Certainly global historians emphasize the degree to which states became more intrusive in the 18th century, but it seems to me that even most people who did not live under an empire of one sort or another might still be said to exist within a certain kind of state, however local.

Armitage writes well, and the book is a pleasure to read. It is fast, informative, and not especially complex. He gives the reader a history, from the point of view of a particular genre of political writing, that suggests the constant negotiation and ambiguity surrounding nation, state, and individual rights.

I haven’t got a great deal to say about this book. Since one of Armitage’s major goals must have been elegance, it would be a bit perverse to make methodological complaints. The goal of elegance certainly was achieved, though I’m not sure what the reader is expected to do with the compilation of declarations of independence that make up the second half of the book. Read them straight through? I was interested in seeing, for my own reasons, the Hatian declaration signed by Dessalines. Perhaps some sort of assistance could have been offered to the interested reader, since the point is clearly not to provide a scholarly edition of these documents. Perhaps some suggestions were included that I missed? (Since I’ve now returned the thing to the library)...I wish I remembered why I picked this up in the first place--it could conceivably have been mentioned in an occasional piece by Pierre Rosanvallon? Providing large quantities of original texts is very much his style.

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