Declaration of Independence


The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most
masterfully written document of Western civilization. This
essay seeks to illuminate that artistry by probing the
discourse microscopically at the level of the sentence,
phrase, word, and syllable. By approaching the Declaration
in this way, we can shed light both on its literary
qualities and on its rhetorical power as a work designed to
convince the American colonies they were justified in
seeking to establish them as an independent nation.
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. Taken out of context, this
sentence is general it could be used as the introduction to
a declaration by anyone. Seen within its original context,
however, it is a model of refinement, and suggestion that
worked on several levels of meaning and allusion. This
orients readers toward a favorable view of America and
prepares them for the rest of the Declaration. It dignifies
the Revolution as a challenge of principle.
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. Rather than presenting one side in a public
controversy on which good and decent people could differ,
the Declaration claims 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 one of observation. The most important
word in the introduction is ^necessary.^ To say an act was
necessary implied that it was impelled by fate or
determined by the operation of foolproof natural laws. The
Revolution was not merely preferable, defensible, or
justifiable. It was as inescapable, as inevitable, and 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.
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.^ The notion of necessity was 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. 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 basic fact that they had
become two different peoples. The gap between them was much
more than political; it was intellectual, social, moral,
cultural, and, according to the principles of nature, was
irreparable. 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. ^Resistance was absolutely necessary in
order to preserve the nation from slavery, misery, and
ruin.^ 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 did not support the American cause. For America
to move against the government in such circumstances would
not be a justifiable act of resistance. By defining the
Americans as a separate people, Congress could more readily
satisfy the requirement for invoking the right of
revolution. 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.
Like the rest of the Declaration, the preamble is brief,
clear, and concise. 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. 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 sentences are composed
of several thoughts linked together, and hanging upon one
another, so that the sense of the whole is not brought out
until the closing. None of the sentences of the preamble
end on a single-syllable word. Only one, the second, 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.
The preamble also has a powerful sense of structural unity.
This unity is achieved partly by the 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. The creation of new
government better secured the people's safety and
happiness. It gave a typical quality to the ideas of the
preamble and continued the notion, mentioned in the
introduction, that the American Revolution was a major
development in ^the course of human events.^ The final
sentence completed a crucial metamorphosis in the text.
Although the Declaration began in an impersonal, even
philosophical voice, it gradually became a kind of drama,
with its tensions expressed more and more in personal
terms. This transformation began with the appearance of the
villain, ^the King of Great Britain,^ who dominated the
stage through the first nine grievances, all of which noted
what ^He has^ done without identifying the victim of his
evil deeds. The word ^our^ is used twenty-six times from
its first appearance in grievance ten times through the
last sentence of the Declaration, while ^us^ occurs eleven
times from its first appearance in grievance eleven times
throughout the rest of the grievances.
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^ personalized the
British-American conflict. This transfigured it from a
complex struggle of diverse origins and assorted motives,
to a simple moral drama in which suffering people
courageously defend their liberty against a cruel and
vicious tyrant. It reduced the detachment between the
reader and the text, and coaxed the reader into seeing the
dispute with Great Britain through the eyes of the
revolutionaries. As the drama of the Declaration unfolded,
the reader increasingly identified with Congress. In this
respect, as in others, the Declaration is a work of
consummate artistry.
From its eloquent introduction, to its relentless
accumulation of charges against George III, to its
nostalgic denunciation of the British people, to its heroic
closing sentence, it sustained 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 logical structure and dramatic appeal,
its skillful use of its fine distinction and implication
all contribute to its rhetorical power. This process
explains why the ^Declaration of Independence^ remains one
of the handful of American political documents that, in
addition to meeting the immediate needs of the moment,
continues to enjoy a radiant literary reputation.


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