We are examining our founding document – an amazing piece of text that brought us to where we are today, and inspired other nations to declare those own free and independent states.
The original Declaration of Independence, ink on parchment. It has been damaged by light and improper storage, and the text has almost faded completely over the past 241 years.
A facsimile copy of The Declaration of Independence, struck in the 19th century. Copies, posters and prints of the document are made from this copy, not the original.
Click here to view the real Declaration of Independence at the National Archive.
As we read, analyze and discuss this document please remember that we are looking at not only its importance historically but also its use of effective syntax, its appeals to rhetoric, and even the flaws of 18th century bias that it includes. Many of the ideals exposed in our founding document are held dear to us, but know the irony in that these ideals as we see them today were not extended to all people living in the new United States.
Please see the videos below over the history of the document and a performance of the Declaration.
Today we also learned how to take DoodleNotes, using The Declaration as an example. Please click here to access the notes.
As we analyze the text, remember to look for the appeals to rhetoric and be able to explain how the syntax of the document make its more effective. Be sure to read The National Archive’s analysis of The Declaration of Independence to inform your own analysis and understanding of the text:
“The text of the Declaration can be divided into five sections–the introduction, the preamble, the indictment of George III, the denunciation of the British people, and the conclusion. Because space does not permit us to explicate each section in full detail, we shall select features from each that illustrate the stylistic artistry of the Declaration as a whole.3
The introduction consists of the first paragraph–a single, lengthy, periodic sentence:
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.4
Taken out of context, this sentence is so general it could be used as the introduction to a declaration by any “oppressed” people. Seen within its original context, however, it is a model of subtlety, nuance, and implication that works on several levels of meaning and allusion to orient readers toward a favorable view of America and to prepare them for the rest of the Declaration. From its magisterial opening phrase, which sets the American Revolution within the whole “course of human events,” to its assertion that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle America to a “separate and equal station among the powers of the earth,” to its quest for sanction from “the opinions of mankind,” the introduction elevates the quarrel with England from a petty political dispute to a major event in the grand sweep of history. It dignifies the Revolution as a contest of principle and implies that the American cause has a special claim to moral legitimacy–all without mentioning England or America by name.
Rather than defining the Declaration’s task as one of persuasion, which would doubtless raise the defenses of readers as well as imply that there was more than one publicly credible view of the British-American conflict, the introduction identifies the purpose of the Declaration as simply to “declare”–to announce publicly in explicit terms–the “causes” impelling America to leave the British empire. This gives the Declaration, at the outset, an aura of philosophical (in the eighteenth-century sense of the term) objectivity that it will seek to maintain throughout. Rather than presenting one side in a public controversy on which good and decent people could differ, the Declaration purports to do no more than a natural philosopher would do in reporting the causes of any physical event. The issue, it implies, is not one of interpretation but of observation.
The most important word in the introduction is “necessary,” which in the eighteenth century carried strongly deterministic overtones. To say an act was necessary implied that it was impelled by fate or determined by the operation of inextricable natural laws and was beyond the control of human agents. Thus Chambers’s Cyclopedia defined “necessary” as “that which cannot but be, or cannot be otherwise.” “The common notion of necessity and impossibility,” Jonathan Edwards wrote in Freedom of the Will, “implies something that frustrates endeavor or desire. . . . That is necessary in the original and proper sense of the word, which is, or will be, notwithstanding all supposable opposition.” Characterizing the Revolution as necessary suggested that it resulted from constraints that operated with lawlike force throughout the material universe and within the sphere of human action. The Revolution was not merely preferable, defensible, or justifiable. It was as inescapable, as inevitable, as unavoidable within the course of human events as the motions of the tides or the changing of the seasons within the course of natural events.5
Investing the Revolution with connotations of necessity was particularly important because, according to the law of nations, recourse to war was lawful only when it became “necessary”–only when amicable negotiation had failed and all other alternatives for settling the differences between two states had been exhausted. Nor was the burden of necessity limited to monarchs and established nations. At the start of the English Civil War in 1642, Parliament defended its recourse to military action against Charles I in a lengthy declaration demonstrating the “Necessity to take up Arms.” Following this tradition, in July 1775 the Continental Congress issued its own Declaration Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms. When, a year later, Congress decided the colonies could no longer retain their liberty within the British empire, it adhered to long-established rhetorical convention by describing independence as a matter of absolute and inescapable necessity.6 Indeed, the notion of necessity was so important that in addition to appearing in the introduction of the Declaration, it was invoked twice more at crucial junctures in the rest of the text and appeared frequently in other congressional papers after July 4, 1776.7
Labeling the Americans “one people” and the British “another” was also laden with implication and performed several important strategic functions within the Declaration. First, because two alien peoples cannot be made one, it reinforced the notion that breaking the “political bands” with England was a necessary step in the course of human events. America and England were already separated by the more basic fact that they had become two different peoples. The gulf between them was much more than political; it was intellectual, social, moral, cultural and, according to the principles of nature, could no more be repaired, as Thomas Paine said, than one could “restore to us the time that is past” or “give to prostitution its former innocence.” To try to perpetuate a purely political connection would be “forced and unnatural,” “repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things.”8
Second, once it is granted that Americans and Englishmen are two distinct peoples, the conflict between them is less likely to be seen as a civil war. The Continental Congress knew America could not withstand Britain’s military might without foreign assistance. But they also knew America could not receive assistance as long as the colonies were fighting a civil war as part of the British empire. To help the colonies would constitute interference in Great Britain’s internal affairs. As Samuel Adams explained, “no foreign Power can consistently yield Comfort to Rebels, or enter into any kind of Treaty with these Colonies till they declare themselves free and independent.” The crucial factor in opening the way for foreign aid was the act of declaring independence. But by defining America and England as two separate peoples, the Declaration reinforced the perception that the conflict was not a civil war, thereby, as Congress noted in its debates on independence, making it more “consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us, or even to receive an Ambassador.”9
Third, defining the Americans as a separate people in the introduction eased the task of invoking the right of revolution in the preamble. That right, according to eighteenth-century revolutionary principles, could be invoked only in the most dire of circumstances–when “resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from slavery, misery, and ruin”–and then only by “the Body of the People.” If America and Great Britain were seen as one people, Congress could not justify revolution against the British government for the simple reason that the body of the people (of which the Americans would be only one part) did not support the American cause. For America to move against the government in such circumstances would not be a justifiable act of resistance but “a sort of Sedition, Tumult, and War . . . aiming only at the satisfaction of private Lust, without regard to the public Good.” By defining the Americans as a separate people, Congress could more readily satisfy the requirement for invoking the right of revolution that “the whole Body of Subjects” rise up against the government “to rescue themselves from the most violent and illegal oppressions.”10
Like the introduction, the next section of the Declaration–usually referred to as the preamble–is universal in tone and scope. It contains no explicit reference to the British- American conflict, but outlines a general philosophy of government that makes revolution justifiable, even meritorious:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But 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.
Like the rest of the Declaration, the preamble is “brief, free of verbiage, a model of clear, concise, simple statement.”11 It capsulizes in five sentences–202–words what it took John Locke thousands of words to explain in his Second Treatise of Government. Each word is chosen and placed to achieve maximum impact. Each clause is indispensable to the progression of thought. Each sentence is carefully constructed internally and in relation to what precedes and follows. In its ability to compress complex ideas into a brief, clear statement, the preamble is a paradigm of eighteenth-century Enlightenment prose style, in which purity, simplicity, directness, precision, and, above all, perspicuity were the highest rhetorical and literary virtues. One word follows another with complete inevitability of sound and meaning. Not one word can be moved or replaced without disrupting the balance and harmony of the entire preamble.
The stately and dignified tone of the preamble–like that of the introduction–comes partly from what the eighteenth century called Style Periodique, in which, as Hugh Blair explained in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, “the sentences are composed of several members linked together, and hanging upon one another, so that the sense of the whole is not brought out till the close.” This, Blair said, “is the most pompous, musical, and oratorical manner of composing” and “gives an air of gravity and dignity to composition.” The gravity and dignity of the preamble were reinforced by its conformance with the rhetorical precept that “when we aim at dignity or elevation, the sound [of each sentence] should be made to grow to the last; the longest members of the period, and the fullest and most sonorous words, should be reserved to the conclusion.” None of the sentences of the preamble end on a single-syllable word; only one, the second (and least euphonious), ends on a two-syllable word. Of the other four, one ends with a four-syllable word (“security”), while three end with three-syllable words. Moreover, in each of the three-syllable words the closing syllable is at least a medium- length four-letter syllable, which helps bring the sentences to “a full and harmonious close.”12
It is unlikely that any of this was accidental. Thoroughly versed in classical oratory and rhetorical theory as well as in the belletristic treatises of his own time, Thomas Jefferson, draftsman of the Declaration, was a diligent student of rhythm, accent, timing, and cadence in discourse. This can be seen most clearly in his “Thoughts on English Prosody,” a remarkable twenty-eight-page unpublished essay written in Paris during the fall of 1786. Prompted by a discussion on language with the Marquis de Chastellux at Monticello four years earlier, it was a careful inquiry designed “to find out the real circumstance which gives harmony to English prose and laws to those who make it.” Using roughly the same system of diacritical notation he had employed in 1776 in his reading draft of the Declaration, Jefferson systematically analyzed the patterns of accentuation in a wide range of English writers, including Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, Addison, Gray, and Garth. Although “Thoughts on English Prosody” deals with poetry, it displays Jefferson’s keen sense of the interplay between sound and sense in language. There can be little doubt that, like many accomplished writers, he consciously composed for the ear as well as for the eye–a trait that is nowhere better illustrated than in the eloquent cadences of the preamble in the Declaration of Independence.13
The preamble also has a powerful sense of structural unity. This is achieved partly by the latent chronological progression of thought, in which the reader is moved from the creation of mankind, to the institution of government, to the throwing off of government when it fails to protect the people’s unalienable rights, to the creation of new government that will better secure the people’s safety and happiness. This dramatic scenario, with its first act implicitly set in the Garden of Eden (where man was “created equal”), may, for some readers, have contained mythic overtones of humanity’s fall from divine grace. At the very least, it gives an almost archetypal quality to the ideas of the preamble and continues the notion, broached in the introduction, that the American Revolution is a major development in “the course of human events.”
Because of their concern with the philosophy of the Declaration, many modern scholars have dealt with the opening sentence of the preamble out of context, as if Jefferson and the Continental Congress intended it to stand alone. Seen in context, however, it is part of a series of five propositions that build upon one another through the first three sentences of the preamble to establish the right of revolution against tyrannical authority:
Proposition 1: All men are created equal.
Proposition 2: They [all men, from proposition 1] are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights
Proposition 3: Among these [man’s unalienable rights, from proposition 2] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
Proposition 4: To secure these rights [man’s unalienable rights, from propositions 2 and 3] governments are instituted among men
Proposition 5: Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [securing man’s unalienable rights, from propositions 2-4], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.
When we look at all five propositions, we see they are meant to be read together and have been meticulously written to achieve a specific rhetorical purpose. The first three lead into the fourth, which in turn leads into the fifth. And it is the fifth, proclaiming the right of revolution when a government becomes destructive of the people’s unalienable rights, that is most crucial in the overall argument of the Declaration. The first four propositions are merely preliminary steps designed to give philosophical grounding to the fifth.
At first glance, these propositions appear to comprise what was known in the eighteenth century as a sorites–“a Way of Argument in which a great Number of Propositions are so linked together, that the Predicate of one becomes continually the Subject of the next following, until at last a Conclusion is formed by bringing together the Subject of the First Proposition and the Predicate of the last.” In his Elements of Logick, William Duncan provided the following example of a sorites:
God is omnipotent.
An omnipotent Being can do every thing possible.
He that can do every thing possible, can do whatever
involves not a Contradiction.
Therefore God can do whatever involves not a
Although the section of the preamble we have been considering is not a sorites (because it does not bring together the subject of the first proposition and the predicate of the last), its propositions are written in such a way as to take on the appearance of a logical demonstration. They are so tightly interwoven linguistically that they seem to make up a sequence in which the final proposition–asserting the right of revolution–is logically derived from the first four propositions. This is accomplished partly by the mimicry of the form of a sorites and partly by the sheer number of propositions, the accumulation of which is reinforced by the slow, deliberate pace of the text and by the use of “that” to introduce each proposition. There is also a steplike progression from proposition to proposition, a progression that is accentuated by the skillful use of demonstrative pronouns to make each succeeding proposition appear to be an inevitable consequence of the preceding proposition. Although the preamble is the best known part of the Declaration today, it attracted considerably less attention in its own time. For most eighteenth-century readers, it was an unobjectionable statement of commonplace political principles. As Jefferson explained years later, the purpose of the Declaration was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of . . . but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”15
Far from being a weakness of the preamble, the lack of new ideas was perhaps its greatest strength. If one overlooks the introductory first paragraph, the Declaration as a whole is structured along the lines of a deductive argument that can easily be put in syllogistic form:
- Major premise: When government deliberately seeks to reduce the people under absolute despotism, the people have a right, indeed a duty, to alter or abolish that form of government and to create new guards for their future security.
- Minor premise: The government of Great Britain has deliberately sought to reduce the American people under absolute despotism.
- Conclusion: Therefore the American people have a right, indeed a duty, to abolish their present form of government and to create new guards for their future security.
As the major premise in this argument, the preamble allowed Jefferson and the Congress to reason from self-evident principles of government accepted by almost all eighteenth-century readers of the Declaration.16
The key premise, however, was the minor premise. Since virtually everyone agreed the people had a right to overthrow a tyrannical ruler when all other remedies had failed, the crucial question in July 1776 was whether the necessary conditions for revolution existed in the colonies. Congress answered this question with a sustained attack on George III, an attack that makes up almost exactly two-thirds of the text.
The indictment of George III begins with a transitional sentence immediately following the preamble:
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
Now, 273 words into the Declaration, appears the first explicit reference to the British-American conflict. The parallel structure of the sentence reinforces the parallel movement of ideas from the preamble to the indictment of the king, while the next sentence states that indictment with the force of a legal accusation:
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these states.
Unlike the preamble, however, which most eighteenth-century readers could readily accept as self-evident, the indictment of the king required proof. In keeping with the rhetorical conventions Englishmen had followed for centuries when dethroning a “tyrannical” monarch, the Declaration contains a bill of particulars documenting the king’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” of the Americans’ rights and liberties. The bill of particulars lists twenty-eight specific grievances and is introduced with the shortest sentence of the Declaration:
To prove this [the king’s tyranny], let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
This sentence is so innocuous one can easily overlook its artistry and importance. The opening phrase–“To prove this”–indicates the “facts” to follow will indeed prove that George III is a tyrant. But prove to whom? To a “candid world”–that is, to readers who are free from bias or malice, who are fair, impartial, and just. The implication is that any such reader will see the “facts” as demonstrating beyond doubt that the king has sought to establish an absolute tyranny in America. If a reader is not convinced, it is not because the “facts” are untrue or are insufficient to prove the king’s villainy; it is because the reader is not “candid.”
The pivotal word in the sentence, though, is “facts.” As a term in eighteenth-century jurisprudence (Jefferson, like many of his colleagues in Congress, was a lawyer), it meant the circumstances and incidents of a legal case, looked at apart from their legal meaning. This usage fits with the Declaration’s similarity to a legal declaration, the plaintiff’s written statement of charges showing a “plain and certain” indictment against a defendant. If the Declaration were considered as analogous to a legal declaration or a bill of impeachment, the issue of dispute would not be the status of the law (the right of revolution as expressed in the preamble) but the facts of the specific case at hand (the king’s actions to erect a “tyranny” in America).17
In ordinary usage “fact” had by 1776 taken on its current meaning of something that had actually occurred, a truth known by observation, reality rather than supposition or speculation.18 By characterizing the colonists’ grievances against George III as “facts,” the Declaration implies that they are unmediated representations of empirical reality rather than interpretations of reality. They are the objective constraints that make the Revolution “necessary.” This is reinforced by the passive voice in “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” Who is submitting the facts? No one. They have not been gathered, structured, rendered, or in any way contaminated by human agents–least of all by the Continental Congress. They are just being “submitted,” direct from experience without the corrupting intervention of any observer or interpreter.
But “fact” had yet another connotation in the eighteenth century. The word derived from the Latin facere, to do. Its earliest meaning in English was “a thing done or performed”–an action or deed. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was used most frequently to denote an evil deed or a crime, a usage still in evidence at the time of the Revolution. In 1769, for example, Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, noted that “accessories after the fact” were “allowed the benefit of clergy in all cases.” The Annual Register for 1772 wrote of a thief who was committed to prison for the “fact” of horse stealing. There is no way to know whether Jefferson and the Congress had this sense of “fact” in mind when they adopted the Declaration. Yet regardless of their intentions, for some eighteenth-century readers “facts” many have had a powerful double-edged meaning when applied to George III’s actions toward America.19
Although one English critic assailed the Declaration for its “studied confusion in the arrangement” of the grievances against George III, they are not listed in random order but fall into four distinct groups.20 The first group, consisting of charges 1-12, refers to such abuses of the king’s executive power as suspending colonial laws, dissolving colonial legislatures, obstructing the administration of justice, and maintaining a standing army during peacetime. The second group, consisting of charges 13-22, attacks the king for combining with “others” (Parliament) to subject America to a variety of unconstitutional measures, including taxing the colonists without consent, cutting off their trade with the rest of the world, curtailing their right to trial by jury, and altering their charters.
The third set of charges, numbers 23-27, assails the king’s violence and cruelty in waging war against his American subjects. They burden him with a litany of venal deeds that is worth quoting in full:
- He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
- He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our people.
- He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
- He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
- He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
The war grievances are followed by the final charge against the king–that the colonists’ “repeated Petitions” for redress of their grievances have produced only “repeated injury.”
The presentation of what Samuel Adams called George III’s “Catalogue of Crimes” is among the Declaration’s most skillful features. First, the grievances could have been arranged chronologically, as Congress had done in all but one of its former state papers. Instead they are arranged topically and are listed seriatim, in sixteen successive sentences beginning “He has” or, in the case of one grievance, “He is.” Throughout this section of the Declaration, form and content reinforce one another to magnify the perfidy of the king. The steady, laborious piling up of “facts” without comment takes on the character of a legal indictment, while the repetition of “He has” slows the movement of the text, draws attention to the accumulation of grievances, and accentuates George III’s role as the prime conspirator against American liberty.21
Second, as Thomas Hutchinson complained, the charges were “most wickedly presented to cast reproach upon the King.” Consider, for example, grievance 10: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” The language is Biblical and conjures up Old Testament images of “swarms” of flies and locusts covering the face of the earth, “so that the land was darkened,” and devouring all they found until “there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field” (Exodus 10:14-15). It also recalls the denunciation, in Psalms 53:4, of “the workers of iniquity . . . who eat up my people as they eat bread,” and the prophecy of Deuteronomy 28:51 that an enemy nation “shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee.” For some readers the religious connotations may have been enhanced by “substance,” which was used in theological discourse to signify “the Essence or Substance of the Godhead” and to describe the Holy Eucharist, in which Christ had “coupled the substance of his flesh and the substance of bread together, so we should receive both.”22
From the revolutionaries’ view, however, the primary advantage of the wording of charge 10 was probably its purposeful ambiguity. The “multitude of New Offices” referred to the customs posts that had been created in the 1760s to control colonial smuggling. The “swarms of Officers” that were purportedly eating out the substance of the colonies’ three million people numbered about fifty in the entire continent. But Congress could hardly assail George III as a tyrant for appointing a few dozen men to enforce the laws against smuggling, so it clothed the charge in vague, evocative imagery that gave significance and emotional resonance to what otherwise might have seemed a rather paltry grievance.23
Third, although scholars often downplay the war grievances as “the weakest part of the Declaration,” they were vital to its rhetorical strategy. They came last partly because they were the most recent of George III’s “abuses and usurpations,” but also because they constituted the ultimate proof of his plan to reduce the colonies under “absolute despotism.” Whereas the first twenty-two grievances describe the king’s acts with such temperate verbs as “refused,” “called together,” “dissolved,” “endeavored,” “made,” “erected,” “kept,” and “affected,” the war grievances use emotionally charged verbs such as “plundered,” “ravaged,” “burnt,” and “destroyed.” With the exception of grievance 10, there is nothing in the earlier charges to compare with the evocative accusation that George III was spreading “death, desolation and tyranny . . . with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages,” or with the characterization of “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known mode of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Coming on the heels of the previous twenty-two charges, the war grievances make George III out as little better than the notorious Richard III, who had forfeited his crown in 1485 for “unnatural, mischievous, and great Perjuries, Treasons, Homicides and Murders, in shedding of Infants’ blood, with many other Wrongs, odious Offences, and abominations against God and Man.”24
To some extent, of course, the emotional intensity of the war grievances was a natural outgrowth of their subject. It is hard to write about warfare without using strong language. Moreover, as Jefferson explained a decade later in his famous “Head and Heart” letter to Maria Cosway, for many of the revolutionaries independence was, at bottom, an emotional–or sentimental–issue. But the emotional pitch of the war grievances was also part of a rhetorical strategy designed to solidify support for independence in those parts of America that had yet to suffer the physical and economic hardships of war. As late as May 1776 John Adams lamented that while independence had strong support in New England and the South, it was less secure in the middle colonies, which “have never tasted the bitter Cup; they have never Smarted–and are therefore a little cooler.” As Thomas Paine recognized, “the evil” of British domination was not yet “sufficiently brought to their doors to make them feel the precariousness with which all American property is possessed.” Paine sought to bring the evil home to readers of Common Sense by inducing them to identify with the “horror” inflicted on other Americans by the British forces “that hath carried fire and sword” into the land. In similar fashion, the Declaration of Independence used images of terror to magnify the wickedness of George III, to arouse “the passions and feelings” of readers, and to awaken “from fatal and unmanly slumbers” those Americans who had yet to be directly touched by the ravages of war.25
Fourth, all of the charges against George III contain a substantial amount of strategic ambiguity. While they have a certain specificity in that they refer to actual historical events, they do not identify names, dates, or places. This magnified the seriousness of the grievances by making it seem as if each charge referred not to a particular piece of legislation or to an isolated act in a single colony, but to a violation of the constitution that had been repeated on many occasions throughout America.
The ambiguity of the grievances also made them more difficult to refute. In order to build a convincing case against the grievances, defenders of the king had to clarify each charge and what specific act or events it referred to, and then explain why the charge was not true. Thus it took John Lind, who composed the most sustained British response to the Declaration, 110 pages to answer the charges set forth by the Continental Congress in fewer than two dozen sentences. Although Lind deftly exposed many of the charges to be flimsy at best, his detailed and complex rebuttal did not stand a chance against the Declaration as a propaganda document. Nor has Lind’s work fared much better since 1776. While the Declaration continues to command an international audience and has created an indelible popular image of George III as a tyrant, Lind’s tract remains a piece of arcana, buried in the dustheap of history.26
In addition to petitioning Parliament and George III, Whig leaders had also worked hard to cultivate friends of the American cause in England. But the British people had proved no more receptive to the Whigs than had the government, and so the Declaration follows the attack on George III by noting that the colonies had also appealed in vain to the people of Great Britain:
Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
This is one of the most artfully written sections of the Declaration. The first sentence, beginning “Nor . . . ,” shifts attention quickly and cleanly away from George III to the colonists’ “British brethren.” The “have we” of the first sentence is neatly reversed in the “We have” at the start of the second. Sentences two through four, containing four successive clauses beginning “We Have . . . ,” give a pronounced sense of momentum to the paragraph while underlining the colonists’ active efforts to reach the British people. The repetition of “We have” here also parallels the repetition of “He has” in the grievances against George III.
The fifth sentence–“They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity”–contains one of the few metaphors in the Declaration and acquires added force by its simplicity and brevity, which contrast with the greater length and complexity of the preceding sentence. The final sentence unifies the paragraph by returning to the pattern of beginning with “We,” and its intricate periodic structure plays off the simple structure of the fifth sentence so as to strengthen the cadence of the entire paragraph. The closing words–“Enemies in War, in Peace Friends”–employ chiasmus, a favorite rhetorical device of eighteenth-century writers. How effective the device is in this case can be gauged by rearranging the final words to read, “Enemies in War, Friends in Peace,” which weakens both the force and harmony of the Declaration’s phrasing.
It is worth noting, as well, that this is the only part of the Declaration to employ much alliteration: “British brethren,” “time to time,” “common kindred,” “which would,” “connections and correspondence.” The euphony gained by these phrases is fortified by the heavy repetition of medial and terminal consonants in adjoining words: “been wanting in attentions to,” “them from time to time,” “to their native justice,” “disavow these usurpations,” “have been deaf to the voice of.” Finally, this paragraph, like the rest of the Declaration, contains a high proportion of one- and two-syllable words (82 percent). Of those words, an overwhelming number (eighty-one of ninety-six) contain only one syllable. The rest of the paragraph contains nine three- syllable words, eight four-syllable words, and four five-syllable words. This felicitous blend of a large number of very short words with a few very long ones is reminiscent of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and contributes greatly to the harmony, cadence, and eloquence of the Declaration, much as it contributes to the same features in Lincoln’s immortal speech.
The British brethren section essentially finished the case for independence. Congress had set forth the conditions that justified revolution and had shown, as best it could, that those conditions existed in Great Britain’s thirteen North American colonies. All that remained was for Congress to conclude the Declaration:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they 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. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
This final section of the Declaration is highly formulaic and has attracted attention primarily because of its closing sentence. Carl Becker deemed this sentence “perfection itself”:
It is true (assuming that men value life more than property, which is doubtful) that the statement violates the rhetorical rule of climax; but it was a sure sense that made Jefferson place “lives” first and “fortunes” second. How much weaker if he had written “our fortunes, our lives, and our sacred honor”! Or suppose him to have used the word “property” instead of “fortunes”! Or suppose him to have omitted “sacred”! Consider the effect of omitting any of the words, such as the last two “ours”–“our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” No, the sentence can hardly be improved.27
Becker is correct in his judgment about the wording and rhythm of the sentence, but he errs in attributing high marks to Jefferson for his “sure sense” in placing “lives” before “fortunes.” “Lives and fortunes” was one of the most hackneyed phrases of eighteenth-century Anglo-American political discourse. Colonial writers had used it with numbing regularity throughout the dispute with England (along with other stock phrases such as “liberties and estates” and “life, liberty, and property”). Its appearance in the Declaration can hardly be taken as a measure of Jefferson’s felicity of expression.
What marks Jefferson’s “happy talent for composition” in this case is the coupling of “our sacred Honor” with “our Lives” and “our Fortunes” to create the eloquent trilogy that closes the Declaration. The concept of honor (and its cognates fame and glory) exerted a powerful hold on the eighteenth-century mind. Writers of all kinds–philosophers, preachers, politicians, playwrights, poets–repeatedly speculated about the sources of honor and how to achieve it. Virtually every educated man in England or America was schooled in the classical maxim, “What is left when honor is lost?” Or as Joseph Addison wrote in his Cato, whose sentiments were widely admired throughout the eighteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic: “Better to die ten thousand deaths/Than wound my honour.” The cult of honor was so strong that in English judicial proceedings a peer of the realm did not answer to bills in chancery or give a verdict “upon oath, like an ordinary juryman, but upon his honor.”28
By pledging “our sacred Honor” in support of the Declaration, Congress made a particularly solemn vow. The pledge also carried a latent message that the revolutionaries, contrary to the claims of their detractors, were men of honor whose motives and actions could not only withstand the closest scrutiny by contemporary persons of quality and merit but would also deserve the approbation of posterity. If the Revolution succeeded, its leaders stood to achieve lasting honor as what Francis Bacon called “Liberatores or Salvatores”– men who “compound the long Miseries of Civil Wars, or deliver their Countries from Servitude of Strangers or Tyrants.” Historical examples included Augustus Caesar, Henry VII of England, and Henry IV of France. On Bacon’s five-point scale of supreme honor, such heroes ranked below only “Conditores Imperiorum, Founders of States and Commonwealths,” such as Romulus, Caesar, and Ottoman, and “Lawgivers” such as Solon, Lycurgus, and Justinian, “also called Second Founders, or Perpetui Principes, because they Govern by their Ordinances after they are gone.” Seen in this way, “our sacred Honor” lifts the motives of Congress above the more immediate concerns of “our Lives” and “our Fortunes” and places the revolutionaries in the footsteps of history’s most honorable figures. As a result it also unifies the whole text by subtly playing out the notion that the Revolution is a major turn in the broad “course of human events.”29
At the same time, the final sentence completes a crucial metamorphosis in the text. Although the Declaration begins in an impersonal, even philosophical voice, it gradually becomes a kind of drama, with its tensions expressed more and more in personal terms. This transformation begins with the appearance of the villain, “the present King of Great Britain,” who dominates the stage through the first nine grievances, all of which note what “He has” done without identifying the victim of his evil deeds. Beginning with grievance 10 the king is joined on stage by the American colonists, who are identified as the victim by some form of first person plural reference: The king has sent “swarms of officers to harass our people,” has quartered “armed troops among us,” has imposed “taxes on us without our consent,” “has taken away our charters, abolished our most valuable laws,” and altered “the Forms of our Governments.” He has “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, . . . destroyed the lives of our people,” and “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” The word “our” is used twenty-six times from its first appearance in grievance 10 through the last sentence of the Declaration, while “us” occurs eleven times from its first appearance in grievance 11 through the rest of the grievances.30
Throughout the grievances action is instigated by the king, as the colonists passively accept blow after blow without wavering in their loyalty. His villainy complete, George III leaves the stage and it is occupied next by the colonists and their “British brethren.” The heavy use of personal pronouns continues, but by now the colonists have become the instigators of action as they actively seek redress of their grievances. This is marked by a shift in idiom from “He has” to “We have”: “We have petitioned for redress . . . ,” “We have reminded them . . . ,” “We have appealed to their . . . ,” and “We have conjured them.” But “they have been deaf” to all pleas, so “We must . . . hold them” as enemies. By the conclusion, only the colonists remain on stage to pronounce their dramatic closing lines: “We . . . solemnly publish and declare . . .” And to support this declaration, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
The persistent use of “he” and “them,” “us” and “our,” “we” and “they” personalizes the British-American conflict and transfigures it from a complex struggle of multifarious origins and diverse motives to a simple moral drama in which a patiently suffering people courageously defend their liberty against a cruel and vicious tyrant. It also reduces the psychic distance between the reader and the text and coaxes the reader into seeing the dispute with Great Britain through the eyes of the revolutionaries. As the drama of the Declaration unfolds, the reader is increasingly solicited to identify with Congress and “the good People of these Colonies,” to share their sense of victimage, to participate vicariously in their struggle, and ultimately to act with them in their heroic quest for freedom. In this respect, as in others, the Declaration is a work of consummate artistry. From its eloquent introduction to its aphoristic maxims of government, to its relentless accumulation of charges against George III, to its elegiac denunciation of the British people, to its heroic closing sentence, it sustains an almost perfect synthesis of style, form, and content. Its solemn and dignified tone, its graceful and unhurried cadence, its symmetry, energy, and confidence, its combination of logical structure and dramatic appeal, its adroit use of nuance and implication all contribute to its rhetorical power. And all help to explain why the Declaration remains one of the handful of American political documents that, in addition to meeting the immediate needs of the moment, continues to enjoy a lustrous literary reputation.”
Originally published in the Spring 1990 issue of Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration.