Historian: The Declaration of Independence was a plea for helpHistorians in the News
tags: Declaration of Independence
Americans celebrate July 4 as their independence day, a moment of patriotic pride and exuberance. On this day (more or less) in 1776, an assembly of unruly colonials in Philadelphia adopted the Declaration of Independence, stating emphatically "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States ... absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown."
But as popular historian Larrie Ferreiro argues in a recent book, the document should also be considered a "Declaration That We Depend on France (and Spain, Too)." Ferreiro's "Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It" — a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in history — places the American Revolution in its proper international context, showing how the fitful efforts of America's Founding Fathers might have come to nothing without the vital support of foreign powers.
Ferreiro spoke to Today's WorldView earlier this year. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Explain to us how the Declaration of Independence was a cry for outside help.
We typically look at the Declaration of Independence as a document written to King George III by the American people, stating why we wanted to become an independent nation. That's what we tell each other when we celebrate the Fourth of July.
But when you look at what happened in 1776, it was clear George III had already got the memo that the Americans wanted to be independent. And when you look at the writing of the Founding Fathers, they make it very clear that they knew they could not fight Britain by themselves. They knew that the only countries that had the motivation and the military and naval capabilities to defeat Britain were France and Spain. And the only way they could join on the Americans' side was if they knew this was not simply a battle of colonists with their mother country to get a better deal. They only would come to our aid if they saw that we were fighting as a sovereign, independent nation against a common adversary.
The Declaration was specifically written for that purpose, and both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said this — they were quite clear in their writings. Thomas Jefferson took those ideas and made a document for the ages, a truly enlightened document that read out many of the ideas of the time on what constitutes the rights of the state and the people. But at the core it was a cry for help. The first considered action by Congress after the Declaration was approved was to put it on a ship so it could reach the courts of France and Spain. ...