Last year, the Declaration Resources Project at Harvard published a feature with twenty-four historians re-reading the Dunlap broadside edition of the Declaration of Independence and then offering brief remarks in their experience. It makes for compelling reading, as scholars who have read and taught the Declaration sometimes for decades come at the document with new eyes.
The project director, Danielle Allen, and staffer Emily Sneff then invited others to share their own thoughts. So here I am.
By way of preface, I read the Declaration two or three times every year, usually because I’m teaching it. In that context, I usually approach it structurally, thinking about how to break down the Declaration’s component parts for students and contextualize the document in the historical moment of 1776. I also try to remember the places that are most likely to trip up students: words that we’ll need to define (the first of which is usurpetion), how to handle the litany of grievances, and how to read it out loud. What I don’t usually do—despite the suspicions of some—is sit down and read the Declaration for fun. Having now done that, here’s my 250-word fresh take.
What were they thinking? It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s the question I start with when I’m being least cynical about the past. What did Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Congress think as they drafted the language that they surely knew would either lead to self-government or the gallows? What could average Americans have thought listening to the document read in their town square, or seeing it in the pages of a newspaper?
I suspect that for Jefferson and Congress, they sensed that many Americans would feel trepidation about the prospect of independence. The Declaration counters that impulse with an air of finality. Here are all the issues that brought us to this place, it says. Declaring independence is just common sense (if I may invoke another 1776 publication). And of course the Declaration wasn’t the place the debate independence; that moment was over. But it projects far more certainty and finality in its language than was or even could have been the case given the circumstances of the war in July 1776.
We often think of the Declaration as forward-looking, presenting natural rights and offering a beacon for future generations. But reading it with the 1776 audience in mind underscores its focus on the past. Indeed the Declaration offers nothing for the future but the “Lives,  Fortunes, and  sacred Honor” of the delegates. The prospect of independence must have been exciting to many. But many hearing or reading the Declaration for the first time must have thought, “What’s next?”