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Liberties taken with Declaration

The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, By David Armitage, Harvard University, 300 pp., $23.95

In 1991, no fewer than 23 countries adopted declarations of independence in a flurry that followed the dismantling of the Soviet Union. In the 10 years between 1958 and 1968, there were 14 declarations after the breakup of colonial empires in Africa.

Another eight in Europe, after World War I, and, to go back further, 20 countries (several of them more than once) between 1810 and 1844, as Spain's colonial empire in South and Central America fragmented, issued declarations of independence.

An "outbreak of a contagion of sovereignty," a veritable "pandemic" even, writes David Armitage, a professor of history at Harvard, in "The Declaration of Independence," a provocative study of a subject about which one might have thought there was nothing new to report.

In all, over half of the world's 192 nations now have made declarations of independence, many of them titled "Declaration of Independence" and virtually all patterned to some degree on our own declaration of July 4, 1776, whose success, Armitage writes in another curious locution, lies in its "generic promiscuity." But the American model is ignored in one significant aspect, and that becomes the central theme of Armitage's account.

Relatively few of the 116 declarations he cites contain statements of "unalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or of the equality of all men, similar to those most cherished elements of the American declaration.

That is in sharp contrast to the role that the Declaration of Independence has played in American society. In her 1997 study, "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence," Pauline Maier, Armitage's cross-town colleague at MIT, describes that role as "a statement of values that more than any other expresses not why we separated from Britain, and not what we are or have been, but what we ought to be, an inscription of ideals."

Armitage suggests that by the time interest in the Declaration was renewed, at its 50th anniversary, "independence had become an uncontested fact." Thus, "Americans had little need to remember the assertions of independent statehood in the Declaration's opening and closing paragraphs."

And, Armitage writes, the "self-evident truths" of the second paragraph were of little value in seeking independence -- as Abraham Lincoln recognized, calling them something placed in the Declaration not for that purpose, "but for future use."

So the thrust of these foreign declarations has been to make statements of independence and to place the new nations, of Eastern Europe, colonial Africa, or Latin America, among the nations of the world, Armitage writes, " rather than an enumeration of the rights of individuals against their governors."

That point, as Armitage notes, had occurred also to Thomas Jefferson, who recalled in 1825 -- the year before his death , on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration -- that "an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification." The object of the American Declaration, Jefferson wrote, was "not to find out new principles . . . but to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

Beyond this global view of the Declaration -- "our global moment merits a global history," he writes -- Armitage provides the texts of the American Declaration of Independence as well as 10 others from that of the Province of Flanders in 1790, through a sampling of declarations from former colonial nations, to the declaration issued in 1965 by the white-ruled government of Southern Rhodesia, which concludes with the startlingly ironic "God save the Queen."