For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence. By Alexander Tsesis. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 397. $29.95.)


The power of the words of the Declaration of Independence resonate to this day. They have both caused and energized revolutions for over two hundred years. Specific phrases such as the need for “consent of the governed” in order to rule and the logical extension of that wording—that this consent could also be withdrawn by the people—have continued to motivate individuals from the time they were written to the recent “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movements. The Declaration also popularized the right—and obligation—to engage in revolution when faced with tyranny.

In this well-researched and brilliantly written book, Alexander Tsesis details the story of the creation of the Declaration and its long-term impact on America and the world. It consists of chapters highlighting the Declaration's impact on the Civil War, Reconstruction, civil rights, and women's issues. Tsesis points out the significant impact of the document in providing “a standard by which government actions could be assessed” (3).

The Declaration is, as the author states, not only a “lustrous artifact” of American history but, more importantly, a “statement of a living creed” (5). As such, it is a treasure that we should continually use for our decisions on the new challenges we face. In this regard, Tsesis skillfully argues that the US Supreme Court's recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the court ruled that corporations have the same rights to free speech as people, was questionable “because it elevated the rights of corporations, which are artificial persons, with natural persons' inalienable right of political expression” (317). Similarly, he argues persuasively that the principles of the Declaration when applied clearly were used to resolve the controversial civil rights issues that the nation faced in the 1860s and 1960s.

In his description of the history of the document as it was drafted and moved through the Continental Congress, Tsesis clarifies that the first real action of the Congress declaring independence was the earlier approved resolution of Richard Henry Lee and not the Declaration itself as is commonly believed (17). This is why John Adams mistakenly wrote that July 2, 1776, would be the day commemorated in history. That was the day the Lee resolution was approved, authorizing a break with England. As the author points out, the actual Declaration of Independence became an explanation of the reasons for seeking independence.

Tsesis makes a compelling argument that we need to continue to be guided by the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence and that even in the twenty-first century it remains the best standard for defining individual liberty. Through his meticulous attention to detail and his superb research and writing, Tsesis is very convincing. This is a book that should be read by both scholars and the general public. It should take a place of honor alongside another highly regarded book, now considered a classic work of history, Carl Becker's The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas [1922].