But the view changes if we focus on the first paragraph:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
…to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station… As several excellent studies have noted, the immediate purpose of the Declaration was an international announcement of independence: it informed the powers of Europe that the American colonists were heretofore to be understood as a separate people and an independent nation, while reassuring them that the new United States would pay “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” The new nation might challenge the principle of monarchy but it would not upend the existing norms of international order. The country sought to prove itself, as Eliga Gould points out in his useful recent book, a “treaty-worthy nation.”
Teaching the Declaration as a problem of international relations rather than political philosophy does three things. First it emphasizes the diplomatic context of the Revolution, and provides a natural segue to European diplomacy and the all-important alliance with France. Second, it alerts students to the weakness of the infant nation. Prudent American leaders recognized that the country’s survival depended in large part on maintaining European goodwill: not only for military aid but also (they hoped, largely in vain) for access to mercantilist markets after the war. Third, it provides a useful way to consider the “radicalness” of the Revolution. Even as John Adams imagined an entirely revised form of international relations in the Model Treaty (emphasizing economic over political ties), the country was proclaiming the importance of adhering to the existing frameworks of international order. As Benjamin Franklin put it in 1775, “The circumstances of a rising State make it necessary frequently to consult the law of nations.” The combination of exceptionalist pronouncements with conventional actions is a recurring theme for considering the behavior of the U.S. in the World.
I also urged students to view the Constitution as a response to problems of an international nature. Emphasizing that the Constitution aimed to enhance federal power (rather than weakening it, as today’s invokers of the Constitution often imply) is a standard task of U.S. historians. National prosperity, the Constitution’s defenders claimed, meant putting strength behind the claim to be an equal member of the society of nations, and this required new centralized powers. Identifying the litany of foreign problems contributing to the desire for a new constitution (including the British refusal to evacuate forts in the Northwest, the difficulty in gaining entry to foreign markets, the lack of access to the Mississippi River) further helps students understand the precarious international position of the United States in the 1780s.
But recent work suggests that we also view the nominally domestic aspects of the Constitution in international terms. In David Hendrickson’s words, the Constitution was a “peace pact” designed to create a durable federation of independent states. In lieu of assigning Hendrickson’s book, I had students read a chapter from Peter Onuf and Leonard Sadosky’s JeffersonianAmerica which explored similar themes. Again the law of nations (as mediated through the work of Emerich de Vattel) assumes an important position. As Onuf and Sadosky explain, the Constitution represented a Goldilocks compromise between the too-informal “republic” of Europe as envisioned by Vattel, and the too-centralized imperial model of Great Britain. The “Philadelphian System” that emerged succeeded in preserving peace between the states—at least until the Civil War. To see the United States as an international federation performs a valuable disorienting function for students. It underlines the fact that our current model of federal union is something that emerged over time and was not inevitable. And it helps students further make the connection between debates that we usually see as domestic, and the international context of the late-eighteenth century.