THE ACT OF ABJURATION AND THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
"All these considerations give us more than sufficient reason to renounce the King of Spain, and seek some other powerful and more gracious prince to take us under his protection."
-- Act of Abjuration (Dutch: Plakkaat van Verlatinghe), 1581
On July 26, 1581, the States General of the United Provinces of the Low Countries issued the Plakkaat van Verlatinge. The Plakkaat, commonly known in English as the Act of Abjuration, argued that the actions of King Phillip II of Spain delegitimized his rule over the Low Countries. As stated in its preamble, when a "prince" does not "defend them from oppression and violence as the shepherd his sheep.... but, on the contrary, oppresses them, seeking opportunities to infringe their ancient customs and privileges, exacting from them slavish compliance, then he is no longer a prince, but a tyrant, and the subjects are to consider him in no other view. And particularly when this is done deliberately, unauthorized by the states, they may not only disallow his authority, but legally proceed to the choice of another prince for their defense."
One who is not familar with the Plakkaat might find these sentiments familiar; this is likely because of its similarities to the American Declaration of Independence, which states that "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
There has been much speculation about the ties between these two seminal documents, including claims that the authors of the Declaration used the Plakkaat as a model. But are the clear similarities prima facie evidence supporting this claim? In his essay "The 'Plakkaat van Verlatinge': A Neglected Model for the American Declaration of Independence," Stephen E. Lucas admits that the evidence is entirely circumstantial, but argues that the similarities are likely the result of more than just analogous political situations.
First, it is important to understand what Lucas calls the "mimetic aesthetic" of the period. To "invent" meant something very different in the eighteenth-century. The accepted meaning of the term was to find or discover. It is quite clear that Thomas Jefferson, the document's chief author, consulted other documents, such as George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights. As Jefferson explained years later, he did not intend to "invent new ideas" or offer "no sentiment that had ever been expressed before."
In his essay, Lucas points out several similarities between the two documents. He claims the influence might not have been in the wording, but as "a paradigm for the argumentative structure." Among other similarities are a lengthy catalogue of grievances and the documentation of repeated unsuccessful attempts to seek redress for these grievances, which leaves no option but revolution.
Historian Pauline Maier, who is not convinced by Lucas's argument, suggests that there might have been a secondary or tertiary influence if the Plakkaat influenced the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, which in turn influenced the American Declaration in 1776. But as Lucas points out, unlike the Plakkaat, the English Declaration does not contain a section comparable to the American Declaration's preamble.
Stephen E. Lucas, "The 'Plakkaat van Verlatinge': A Neglected Model for the American Declaration of Independence", in Rosemarijn Hofte and Johanna C. Kardux, eds., Connecting Cultures: The Netherlands in Five Centuries of Transatlantic Exchange