Political hucksters—both Left and Right—are dusting off copies of the Declaration of Independence in preparation for the July 4th observances. At most, they are making sure to quote correctly the language of paragraph two which speaks of self-evident truths about liberty and equality. Seldom does a modern rhetorician even glance at the remainder of the document.

On this Independence Day, Americans should invoke the rule of completeness against such abuse of the Declaration. Under the rules of evidence, if a party introduces part of a statement his adversary may demand introduction of other parts that in fairness ought to be considered to provide full context.

With the Declaration, full context casts doubt on claims that the United States is built upon a proposition (i.e., equality) and destined to have a powerful government capable of exporting democracy and liberal values across the globe. The Declaration—read as a whole—is a document of secession in which the thirteen colonies removed themselves from Great Britain’s jurisdiction and claimed the right to govern themselves in local assemblies.

The main body of the Declaration is an indictment of George III for assisting Parliament in hindering self-government in the various colonial assemblies. The distant British government had sent “swarms of officers to harass our people,” “alter[ed] fundamentally the forms of our government” without consent of the people, and ignored the ancient rights of Englishmen that protected the King’s subjects in North America.

“A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant,” the Declaration avers, “is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Tyranny to the Revolutionary generation, in the words of James Madison, was “[t]he accumulation of all powers . . . in the same hands.” George III and Parliament, living 3000 miles away from the colonists, claimed all power despite having no knowledge of local colonial circumstances. In the Declaratory Act of 1766, Parliament announced it had the authority to legislate “in all cases whatsoever” regarding the thirteen colonies.

To address the tyranny of British centralization, the Declaration calls for “separation.” The thirteen colonies “are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.” Under the law of nations, the Declaration continues, such states have “full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.”

Modern readers should notice use of the plural: States. While the colonies presented a united front in challenging Great Britain, the Declaration is clear that the self-government sought would be conducted in 13 different bodies, not one great continental legislature. If the Declaration was a charter of nationhood as some scholars suggest, the states would not have needed to form a confederation after July 4, 1776. The fact that they did draft and adopt the Articles of Confederation contradicts the assertion popularized by Abraham Lincoln that the union preceded the states.

Indeed, the Articles specifically declare that the union is “a firm league of friendship” among sovereign states for purposes of combating Great Britain and other limited objectives. The colonists were not seeking to trade one distant and centralized government for another. That would have defeated the entire purpose of the American Revolution.

Unfortunately, Independence Day celebrations will have few honest orators on the meaning of the Declaration. An honest disquisition would cause the people to ask tough questions. Why does Congress seemingly legislate in all cases whatsoever regarding the internal affairs of the states? How did the three branches of the federal government absorb all power at the center to easily qualify as a tyranny under Madison’s definition?

Why do we tolerate swarms of federal officers harassing our people? Why have we allowed the federal courts to strike state constitutional provisions on marriage and other matters without consent of the people? Why have we willingly traded our ancient rights for the dictates of administrative agencies?

As for the much-ballyhooed principle of equality, anyone who has played a pickup game of basketball or taken a grade school math class knows that it is nonsense to claim that all people are created equal. Equality is a lie, yet it has become a guiding governmental principle to achieve equal outcomes in school, the workforce, and other aspects of life.

On second thought, maybe the crowds at Independence Day events should not invoke the rule of completeness. We have strayed so far from the real principles of the Declaration that July 4th might turn into a day of mourning rather than a celebration of the accomplishments of the Revolutionary generation.