Today is the day that Americans celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence that marked our intent to establish our own nation, free from British colonial rule. Like many holidays, I believe it's an opportunity to reflect on our history as a better way to understand where we might head in the future.
Agency versus passivity
One of the reasons that the Declaration of Independence is so inspiring is that it was a brave act by a group of people who believed it was not only their right, but their duty, to resist oppression. It's an example of people expressing a sense of agency – their ability to change their destiny through taking action.
If you think about it in context, it was an extraordinary act of bravery. How could a small group of colonists in a distant and largely undeveloped land possibly imagine that they could take on the largest empire in the world at the time and win? They not only believed it was possible, but that it was something that could be achieved if they came together and acted with resolve.
This is in sharp contrast with a growing trend around the world today. Faced with mounting performance pressure, an increasing number of people are falling into passivity. They're overwhelmed by the forces shaping our global economy and society and they have an increasing sense that things are simply beyond their control.
If we're going to achieve our potential, we need to find a way to overcome this passivity and actively shape our future. We need to abandon passivity and embrace a sense of agency.
Achieve more of our potential
The colonists who came together in Philadelphia were driven by a deep sense of natural rights that are unalienable. The Declaration of Independence at the outset refers specifically to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While the first two rights are perhaps more straightforward and easy to understand, there's been some misunderstanding around that third right – the pursuit of happiness.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence were not declaring that they had a right to be happy, rather than sad. They were very much influenced by philosophers extending back to the ancient Greeks who believed that we all are driven to achieve more of our potential and that true happiness can only occur when we are able to do that. We can trace this meaning of happiness all the way back to the Greek concept of “eudaimonia” which ultimately describes a condition of human flourishing that they believed was a prerequisite for true happiness or a sense of fulfillment. In short, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were declaring that we all have a right to pursue more of our human potential and to resist institutions that seek to limit that right.
In a world of mounting performance pressure, we may begin to lose hope that we can achieve more of our potential and fall back on survival as the best that we can hope for. The Declaration of Independence is an important reminder that we all have an inalienable right to pursue human flourishing. That right becomes more meaningful if we can find a way to move beyond passivity and restore our sense of human agency.
The emerging American narrative
In many respects, the Declaration of Independence was a key milestone in the framing of a compelling American narrative that has been a key factor in the growth and prosperity of the United States. I’ve talked a lot about a very specific meaning of narrative here and here. In brief, I believe that powerful narratives are ultimately a call to action that bring people together to help address an opportunity or threat out in the future.
The growth of the United States has been driven by an opportunity based narrative that spoke to people around the world. At a high level, that narrative basically said that, no matter how modest your current resources or condition, there was an opportunity to achieve far more of your potential and aspirations. The call to action was that, to achieve that opportunity, you had to make the journey to the United States from wherever you were in the world.
Over centuries that narrative has drawn people from all over the world to disrupt their lives and take great risk to find a way to come to the US and participate in that narrative. The early colonists in the British outposts in what is now the United States were certainly drawn by the opportunity to achieve more of their potential. In some cases, it was the opportunity to pursue their religious beliefs more freely and, in other cases, it was the lure of exploring new parts of the world and achieving a higher level of prosperity than if they stayed in the villages of their ancestors.
The Declaration of Independence was a bold defense of that opportunity and inspired even more to make the journey in the decades and centuries following the signing of this document. Narratives become more credible when people act on them and achieve the opportunities that the narratives promise for others.
Now, I want to acknowledge that this narrative had its limitations and blindspots. It turned a blind eye to the plight of many, starting with the American Indians who occupied this land long before any immigrants came from Europe. It also clearly was not addressed to the Africans who were brought over as slaves to toil in the fields of early European settlers. It also was largely addressed to males, since women were expected to accompany their male partners or fathers and serve their needs, rather than focusing on opportunities for themselves.
Nevertheless, I believe this narrative played a key role in bringing a large number of increasingly diverse people from many parts of the world to the United States and was a key driver in the growth and prosperity of the American economy.
The American narrative was largely an individualistic narrative – speaking to individuals about what they could achieve on their own through their individual efforts. Yet, the Declaration of Independence was an inspiring example of the opportunity that can be created when people come together, rather than just acting in isolation. It made clear that, no matter how much we can achieve through individual initiative, there's far more opportunity that can be achieved when people collaborate.
Now we come to an interesting dimension of the Declaration of Independence that often isn't mentioned. We frame the Declaration of Independence as the opening salvo in the American Revolution against the British Empire. Truth be told, the Declaration of Independence was an act of secession, not revolution. We were not seeking to overthrow the British monarchy; we were seeking to leave it.
In fact, the American Revolution became a catalyst for a growing wave of secessionist movements around the world that were seeking independence from oppressive European empires. It was the opening salvo in the disintegration of the empires that ruled the world at the time and that limited the ability of large numbers of people to achieve more of their potential.
I know that secession has gotten a bad reputation because of the secessionist movement that led to the American Civil War but, at the risk of being too provocative, let me suggest that the Declaration of Independence will ultimately become an inspiration for a new wave of secessionist movements around the world.
There’s a global movement of people into large urban settlements around the world. It's been going on for centuries and it's accelerating, rather than slowing down. There are many reasons for this movement, but one key reason is an intuitive sense that more and more people have that they will achieve more of their potential in a large city than they ever could in a rural area or small town.
As large urban cities become the key drivers of economic growth and prosperity, there will likely be growing friction between these cities and the national governments that rule over them. I suspect we're on the cusp of a “back to the future” moment when we will see the rise of a new generation of city states and the disintegration of nation states. We're already starting to hear talk in the United States of a new wave of secessionist movements driven by cities that want more autonomy in helping their residents to achieve more of their potential, free from the constraints imposed by the Federal government.
In that context, the Declaration of Independence may acquire new meaning. It shows what can be achieved when people take initiative and come together to create conditions where they can achieve more of their potential.
Let’s not just view the Declaration of Independence as an interesting historical event. Let’s find a way to draw on this historical event to shape our future. We’ll only thrive and flourish if we restore our sense of agency and re-commit to the opportunity to achieve more of our potential, both as individuals and as communities. There are clearly significant risks and challenges along the way but, if we come together to pursue this opportunity, the potential is limitless. Those brave men who came together in Philadelphia to challenge the most powerful government in the world can be an inspiration for all of us, including American Indians, African Americans and women. We are all in this together.