Declaration of Independence illegal, British lawyers argue

Last night in Philadelphia, a debate was held in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Temple American Inn of Court, between teams of British and American lawyers, on the subject of whether the U.S. Declaration of Independence is illegal. Not surprisingly for an event held just a few blocks away from where the Declaration was signed, the ...

Last night in Philadelphia, a debate was held in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Temple American Inn of Court, between teams of British and American lawyers, on the subject of whether the U.S. Declaration of Independence is illegal. Not surprisingly for an event held just a few blocks away from where the Declaration was signed, the crowd voted with the Americans at the end. (It would be a pretty good "Decline Watch" candidate if they hadn't.) But was it the right call? 

Here's the British case, as summarized by BBC.com:

The Declaration of Independence was not only illegal, but actually treasonable. There is no legal principle then or now to allow a group of citizens to establish their own laws because they want to. What if Texas decided today it wanted to secede from the Union?

Last night in Philadelphia, a debate was held in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Temple American Inn of Court, between teams of British and American lawyers, on the subject of whether the U.S. Declaration of Independence is illegal. Not surprisingly for an event held just a few blocks away from where the Declaration was signed, the crowd voted with the Americans at the end. (It would be a pretty good "Decline Watch" candidate if they hadn’t.) But was it the right call? 

Here’s the British case, as summarized by BBC.com:

The Declaration of Independence was not only illegal, but actually treasonable. There is no legal principle then or now to allow a group of citizens to establish their own laws because they want to. What if Texas decided today it wanted to secede from the Union?

Lincoln made the case against secession and he was right. The Declaration of Independence itself, in the absence of any recognised legal basis, had to appeal to "natural law", an undefined concept, and to "self-evident truths", that is to say truths for which no evidence could be provided.

The grievances listed in the Declaration were too trivial to justify secession. The main one – no taxation without representation – was no more than a wish on the part of the colonists, to avoid paying for the expense of protecting them against the French during seven years of arduous war and conflict.

The Americans, on the other hand, argued that the Declaration’s "validity is proven by subsequent independence movements."

I think the Brits here are relying on the same faulty assumption that some opponents of Palestinian statehood have recently employed, that there are specific and universally applicable rules governing when a country can be considered independent. 

In any case, wasn’t breaking British laws kind of the point? Maybe next time we can debate the legality of colonizing other people’s countries in the first place. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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