How People Abroad Viewed Our Declaration of Independence

How did people around the world react to the American Declaration of Independence?

On Tuesday, July 9, 1776, the German printer Henrich Miller published the first translation of the Declaration, just four days after the English text was first published by John Dunlop whose printing shop was a few doors away in Philadelphia.

Many French people were eager to see the Declaration, but until 1778, when the French government announced its alliance with the rebels, producing a translation was a dangerous thing to do in France. Alleged translations were anonymous. The earliest-known French translation was published in the Netherlands.

Abroad, the Declaration had the greatest impact on debates leading up to the French Revolution (1789). The French referred frequently not only to the Declaration but also to the Virginia Bill of Rights, state constitutions and bills of rights and the U.S. Constitution. These documents, scholars Elise Marienstras and Naomi Wulf wrote, “acted as an indispensable guide or foil in the conception of their own principles.”

In London, the Russian chargé d’affairs Vasilii Grigor’evich Lizakevich learned the news about the Declaration and on August 13 wrote a dispatch to the first minister of the College of Foreign Affairs, Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin, making clear the significance of the Declaration: “The publication of this document as well as the proclamation of a formal declaration of war against Great Britain offer evidence of the courage of the leadership there.”

Russian newspapers published much information from America, but the actual text of the Declaration was suppressed there for eight decades. Meanwhile, the American Revolution inspired the Russian poet Aleksandr Nikolaievich Radishchev who wrote an ode called “Vol’nost” (Liberty). Apparently Empress Catherine wasn’t pleased, and Radishchev was exiled to Siberia. In December 1825, Russian army officers led the Decembrist Revolt against the autocrat Nicholas I, and they were hanged. Not until 1863, after czar Alexander II implemented some important reforms – notably the abolition of serfdom – was it safe to publish a translation of the American Declaration of Independence in Russia.

Although Spain provided some money to help Americans fight Britain in the Revolutionary War, this was because of the rivalry between those great powers. Spanish monarchs, like the French King Louis XVI who provided crucial assistance for the Americans, wasn’t interested in promoting democracy.

The first Spanish translation of the Declaration doesn’t seem to have been published until about 1868, more than nine decades after the Declaration, when Spain had its own Glorious Revolution. It involved the overthrow of Queen Isabella II and, two years later, resulted in the Spanish Republic. But royalists fought back, and in 1875 the monarchy was restored with Isabella’s son crowned King Alfonso XII.

Scholar Joaquim Olra reflected, “That the Declaration of Independence was so seldom translated into Spanish may be due to various causes. One might be Jefferson’s inclusion of the ‘pursuit of Happiness’ among the ‘certain unalienable rights,’ which goes against the Spanish understanding of the Catholic teaching on happiness, since this was always understood as attainable only in the other world.” Olra added that during the Glorious Revolution, many Spaniards talked about “derechos ilegislables [unalienable rights], an expression that was then completely new in the Spanish political vocabulary and that probably has never been used since.”

The first Japanese translation of the Declaration was in 1854, the year the United States and Japan signed a treaty in Yokohama, after more two centuries of isolation from the outside world. But that translation was based on an American history book written in Chinese.

Fukuzawa Yukichi, a great admirer of Benjamin Franklin’s enterprising spirit, was the first to produce a Japanese translation of the Declaration and the Constitution directly from English. This was a daunting task, because there weren’t any good English-Japanese dictionaries. According to Tadashi Aruga, a Japanese scholar, “There were no readily available Japanese words for such key Western concepts as freedom, equality and right. At first Japanese scholars were able to refer to Chinese translations of Western books. Increasingly, however, Japanese translators had to invent for themselves appropriate Japanese words. They found Japanese words of Chinese origin that could be redefined to convey Western concepts, rediscovered rarely used Chinese words, or created new words by making new combinations of Chinese characters.”

The Chinese translation of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t published until 1901. It appeared in Guomin Bao, a monthly journal published by Chinese students in Tokyo. “The concept of natural rights has been consistently alien to the Chinese mind,” explained translator Frank Li. “Natural and civil rights were terms that could not be found in the vast sea of Chinese political, social, philosophical and literary writing. Yet, on rare occasions, the word ‘freedom’ (ziyou) was used in poetry and other literary works to denote an unconstrained atmosphere. The word had no political or philosophical connotation.”

Since the time of the American Declaration of Independence, dozens of societies – including some communist regimes like Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam (1945) – have issued declarations of independence. While independence is generally important for a free society, it isn’t enough. Among the many essential elements are popular support for the doctrine of natural rights, secure private property, freedom of association, freedom of contract, freedom of trade, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, representative assemblies, term limits, a separation of church and state, a separation of powers with checks & balances, and other measures to limit government power. The more of these a society has, the more likely it will be free.