Declaration of Independence


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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.

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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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