Rhetoric of John Locke in the Declaration of Independance

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The Declaration of Independence is arguably the most important document in American history and possibly its greatest example of successful rhetoric. Yet one mustwonder why this is so when there are no original ideas, new assertions of political dogma, or even a true declaration of independence contained in this brief document. In fact, most of the document itself seems to have been plagiarized, or at least pulled heavily from John Locke, enough that “Richard Henry Lee said the Declaration had been ‘copied from Locke’s treatise on government.” (Stephens 55) Why, then, is it considered to be the foundation on which American Democracy stands, and why did it effectively unify a burgeoning nation against an enemy in a war for its independence? The answer must lie in the rhetoric used in the document as well as in the constraints of the people from the thirteen united states that bound them to seventeenth century Lockean philosophies in the first place. Therefore, in order to create the Declaration of Independence as both a unifying force to the country as well as a justification to the rest of the world, Lockean rhetoric was used as the foundation to the document’s logic and pathos that, weather employed precisely or altered purposefully, took advantage of the constraints held by the thirteen states.

In order to understand the effect of the rhetoric used in the Declaration of Independence, one must first examine the history leading up to it. Though, popularly, this document is known for declaring the independence of the new United States of America, that view is not exactly correct. On June 7th, 1776, Richard Henry Lee had offered up a resolution of independence, and on July 2nd, 1776, John Adams, along with some other founding fathers, passed this resolution through Congress. Therefore, the Declaration of Independence was merely restating what had already been settled on two days before. “In other words, the direct goal of independence had already been proclaimed before the formal statement of justification for the action, in effect the ideology had been officially approved.” (Grimes 5) This, then, goes to prove that since Jefferson and the other framers of the Declaration already had the budding nation’s consent, they were free to use rhetoric native to colonial ideology, the rhetoric of John Locke, in order to construct both the justification to foreign nations and the unifying aspects for the colonies.

Also, it is important to note that with the consent of the thirteen states already obtained, the Declaration of Independence was not directly written for the people of these states, as is so often implicated currently, but for the major foreign powers of the time. As Thomas Jefferson himself said, “an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments…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.” (Grimes 5) However, by agreeing to send the Declaration to the world, the thirteen states consented to the rhetoric therein, and the framers took advantage of that. They, accordingly, used Locke’s rhetoric, both exact and altered, to create a unity of nationhood through communal consent of the document’s language. The document, therefore, used the rhetoric of the people of the United States, originating from John Locke, which they knew to be “self-evident”, and his principles in order to justify their actions to the world and to unify the states.

To prove furthermore that the Colonies’ political philosophies, not simply Thomas Jefferson’s, were intertwined with those espoused by John Locke, and that the constraints of the people therein were such as to completely accept Lockean rhetoric, one needs only to examine the original draft of the Declaration....
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