The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence
by Stephen E. Lucas
The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most masterfully written state
paper of Western civilization. As Moses Coit Tyler noted almost a century ago,
no assessment of it can be complete without taking into account its extraordinary
merits as a work of political prose style. Although many scholars have recognized
those merits, there are surprisingly few sustained studies of the stylistic
artistry of the Declaration.(1) 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 a "candid world" that the American colonies were justified
in seeking to establish themselves as an independent nation.(2)
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
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
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
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
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
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:
||All men are created equal.
||They [all men, from proposition 1] are endowed by their creator with
certain unalienable rights
|| Among these [man's unalienable rights, from proposition 2] are life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
||To secure these rights [man's unalienable rights, from propositions
2 and 3] governments are instituted among men
|| 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:
||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.
||The government of Great Britain has deliberately sought to reduce the
American people under absolute despotism.
||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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
c 1989 by Stephen E. Lucas
Stephen E. Lucas is professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin,
Madison, WI. The present essay is derived from a more comprehensive study, "Justifying
America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document," in
Thomas W. Benson, ed., American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism (1989).
(1) Moses Coit Tyler, The Literary History of the American Revolution (1897),
vol. 1, p. 520. The best known study of the style of the Declaration is Carl
Becker's "The Literary Qualities of the Declaration," in his The
Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922),
pp. 194-223. Useful also are Robert Ginsberg, "The Declaration as Rhetoric,"
in Robert Ginsberg, ed., A Casebook on the Declaration of Independence
(1967), pp. 219-244; Edwin Gittleman, "Jefferson's 'Slave Narrative': The
Declaration of Independence as a Literary Text," Early American Literature
8 (1974): 239-256; and James Boyd White, When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions
and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community (1984), 231 240.
Although most books on the Declaration contain a chapter on the "style"
of the document, those chapters are typically historical accounts of the evolution
of the text from its drafting by Thomas Jefferson through its approval by the
Continental Congress or philosophical speculations about the meaning of its
(2) As Garry Wills demonstrates in Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration
of Independence (1978), there are two Declarations of Independence the version
drafted by Thomas Jefferson and that revised and adopted on July 4, 1776, by
the Continental Congress sitting as a committee of the whole. Altogether Congress
deleted 630 words from Jefferson's draft and added 146, producing a final text
of 1,322 words (excluding the title). Although Jefferson complained that Congress
"mangled" his manuscript and altered it "much for the worse,"
the judgment of posterity, stated well by Becker, is that "Congress left
the Declaration better than it found it" (Declaration of Independence,
p. 209). In any event, for better or worse, it was Congress's text that presented
America's case to the world, and it is that text with which we are concerned
in this essay.
(3) Nothing in this essay should be interpreted to mean that a firm line can
be drawn between style and substance in the Declaration or in any other work
of political or literary discourse. As Peter Gay has noted, style is "form
and content woven into the texture of every art and craft. . . . Apart from
a few mechanical tricks of rhetoric, manner is indissolubly linked to matter;
style shapes and is in turn shaped by, substance" (Style in History ,
(4) All quotations from the Declaration follow the text as presented in Julian
P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1950 ), vol. 1,
(5) Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopedia: Or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and
Sciences (1728), vol. 2, p. 621; Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will,
ed. Paul Ramsey (1957), p. 149.
(6) Declaration of the Lords and Commons to Justify Their Taking Up Arms, August
1642, in John Rushworth, ed., Historical Collections of Private Passages
of State, Weighty Matters in Law, Remarkable Proceedings in Five Parliaments
(1680-1722), vol. 4, pp. 761-768; Declaration of the Continental Congress Setting
Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms, July 1775, in James
H. Hutson, ed., A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind: Congressional
State Papers, 1774-1776 (1975), pp. 89-98. The importance of necessity as
a justification for war among nations is evident in the many declarations of
war issued by European monarchs throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
and is discussed in Tavers Twiss, The Law of Nations Considered as Independent
Political Communities (1863), pp. 54-55.
(7) The first additional invocation of the doctrine of necessity in the Declaration
comes immediately after the preamble, when Congress states, "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." The second
is at the end of the penultimate section, in which Congress ends its denunciation
of the British people by announcing, "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."
(8) [Thomas Paine], Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America
. . . (1776), pp. 41, 43.
(9) Samuel Adams to Joseph Hawley, Apr. 15, 1776, Letters of Delegates to Congress,
1774 1789, ed. Paul H. Smith (1976 ), vol. 3, p. 528; Thomas Jefferson, Notes
of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, Jefferson Papers 1: 312.
(10) Jonathan Mayhew, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Nonresistance
to the Higher Powers . . . (1750), p. 45; [John, Lord Somers], The Judgment
of Whole Kingdoms and Nations, Concerning the Rights, Power and Prerogative
of Kings, and the Rights, Privileges and Properties of the People (1710),
par. 186; Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (1693), p. 181;
John Hoadly, ed., The Works of Benjamin Hoadly (1773), vol. 2, p. 36;
"Pacificus," Pennsylvania Gazette, Sept. 14, 1774.
(11) Becker, Declaration of Independence, p. 201. (12) Hugh Blair,
Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), vol. 1, pp. 206-207, 259.
(13) "Thoughts on English Prosody" was enclosed in an undated letter
of ca. October 1786 to the Marquis de Chastellux. The letter is printed in Jefferson
Papers 10: 498; the draft of Jefferson's essay, which has not been printed,
is with the letter to Chastellux in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library
of Congress, Washington, DC. Julian P. Boyd, "The Declaration of Independence:
The Mystery of the Lost Original," Pennsylvania Magazine of History
and Biography 100 (1976): 455-462, discusses "Thoughts on English Prosody"
and its relation to Jefferson's reading text of the Declaration. Given the changes
made by Congress in some sections of the Declaration, it should be noted that
the style of the preamble is distinctly Jeffersonian and was approved by Congress
with only two minor changes in wording from Jefferson's fair copy as reported
by the Committee of Five.
(14) William Duncan, The Elements of Logick (1748), p. 242. See also
Isaac Watts, Logick: or, The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth,
8th ed. (1745), p. 304; [Henry Aldrich], A Compendium of Logic, 3d ed.
(1790), p. 23.
(15) Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 5, 1825, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,
ed. Paul Leicester Ford (1892-1899), vol. 10, p. 343.
(16) Wilbur Samuel Howell, "The Declaration of Independence and Eighteenth-Century
Logic," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser. 18 (1961): 463-484,
claims Jefferson consciously structured the Declaration as a syllogism with
a self-evident major premise to fit the standards for scientific proof advanced
in William Duncan's Elements of Logick, a leading logical treatise of the eighteenth
century. As I argue in a forthcoming essay, however, there is no hard evidence
to connect Duncan's book with the Declaration. Jefferson may have read Elements
of Logick while he was a student at the College of William and Mary, but
we are not certain that he did. He owned a copy of it, but we cannot establish
whether the edition he owned was purchased before or after 1776. We cannot even
say with complete confidence that Jefferson inserted the words "self-evident"
in the Declaration; if he did, it was only as an afterthought in the process
of polishing his original draft. Moreover, upon close examination it becomes
clear that the Declaration does not fit the method of scientific reasoning recommended
in Duncan's Logick. Its "self- evident" truths are not self-evident
in the rigorous technical sense used by Duncan; it does not provide the definitions
of terms that Duncan regards as the crucial first step in syllogistic demonstration;
and it does not follow Duncan's injunction that both the minor premise and the
major premise must be self-evident if a conclusion is to be demonstrated in
a single act of reasoning. The syllogism had been part of the intellectual baggage
of Western civilization for two thousand years, and the notion of self-evident
truth was central to eighteenth-century philosophy. Jefferson could readily
have used both without turning to Duncan's Logick for instruction.
(17) "Declaration" in John Cowell, Nomothetes. The Interpreter,
Concerning the Genuine Signification of Such Obscure Words and Terms Used Either
in the Common or Statute Laws of This Realm . . . (1684). For the requirements
of legal declarations in various kinds of civil suits during the eighteenth
century, see William Selwyn, An Abridgement of the Law of Nisi Prius,
4th ed. (1817).
(18) "Fact" in Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language:
In Which the Words are Deduced from Their Origins and Illustrated in Their Different
Significations by Examples from the Best Writers (1755).
(19) Oxford English Dictionary (1933), vol. 4, pp. 11-12; Sir William
Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1771), vol. 4, p. 39;
The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for
the Year 1772 (1773), p. 57.
(20) John Lind, Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress .
. . , 5th ed. (1776), p. 123. Because the grievances are not numbered in the
Declaration, there has been disagreement over how many there are and how they
should be numbered. I have followed Sidney George Fisher, "The Twenty-Eight
Charges against the King in the Declaration of Independence," Pennsylvania
Magazine of History and Biography 31 (1907): 257-303. An alternative numbering
system is used by Wills, Inventing America, pp. 68-75.
(21) Samuel Adams to John Pitts, ca. July 9, 1776, Letters of Delegates
4: 417. The sole congressional paper before the Declaration of Independence
to list grievances topically was the 1774 Bill of Rights (Hutson, Decent
Respect, pp. 49-57).
(22) [Thomas Hutchinson], Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress
at Philadelphia . . . (1776), p. 16; Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual
System of the Universe (1678), p. 601; Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of
Ecclesiasticall Politie (1594 1596), vol. 5, sec. 67, p. 178.
(23) Between 1764 and 1766 England added twenty-five comptrollers, four surveyors
general, and one plantation clerk to its customs service in America. It added
seventeen more officials in 1767 with the creation of a Board of Customs Commissioners
to reside in Boston. These appointments may also have generated a mild ripple
effect, resulting in the hiring of a few lesser employees to help with office
chores and customs searches, but there is no way to know, since the records
are now lost. See Thomas C. Barrow, Trade and Empire: The British Customs
Service in Colonial America, 1660 1775 (1967), pp. 186-187, 220-221.
(24) Howard Mumford Jones, "The Declaration of Independence: A Critique,"
in The Declaration of Independence: Two Essays (1976), p. 7; sentence
against Richard III in Rotuli Parliamentorum; ut et petitiones placita in
Parliamento (1783 1832), vol. 6, p. 276.
(25) Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, Oct. 12, 1786, Jefferson Papers
10: 451; John Adams to Benjamin Hichborn, May 29, 1776, Letters of Delegates
4: 96; Paine, Common Sense, pp. 40-42.
(26) See note 20 for bibliographic information on Lind's pamphlet.
(27) Becker, Declaration of Independence, p. 197.
(28) For the importance of fame and honor to the revolutionaries, see Douglass
Adair, "Fame and the Founding Fathers," in Fame and the Founding
Fathers, ed. Trevor Colbourn (1974), pp. 3-26; Garry Wills, Cincinnatus:
George Washington and the Enlightenment (1984), pp. 109 148; Bruce Miroff,
"John Adams: Merit, Fame, and Political Leadership," Journal of
Politics 48 (1986): 116-132. The quotation about Jefferson's "happy
talent for composition" is from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, Aug. 6,
1822, The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (1850), vol.
2, p. 511. The statement about peers of the realm is from Blackstone, Commentaries
(29) Francis Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall . . .
(1625), pp. 313-314. See Adair, "Fame and the Founding Fathers," pp.
114-115, for the importance of Bacon's essay on honor among the revolutionaries.
(30) Cf. Ginsberg, "The Declaration as Rhetoric," p. 228.