The Declaration of Independence
Christian Johnson / P6
The Declaration of Independence is considered by many to be the finest piece of political prose ever written. It can be seen as a document in five parts: the introduction, the preamble, the denunciation of George III, the denunciation of the British people, and the conclusion. We are going to closely examine the first three as a way to understand how Jefferson's rhetorical strategies serves the political aims of the young colonies.
The introduction consists of the first paragraph, which is a single long sentence (periodic sentence for those who will do well in May). Read the first paragraph and come up with two reasons why Jefferson would frame the introduction in the way he did.
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 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.
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."
If you had to argue that the most important word in the first paragraph is necessary, how would you make that case?
To say an act was necessary during the 18th century implied that it was impelled by fate or determined by the operation of inextricable natural laws and was beyond the control of human agents. Characterizing the Revolution as necessary suggested that it resulted from constraints that operated with law like 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
Take a look at the second paragraph in which Jefferson sets forth a series of propositions (five in all) that have been called the clearest, most direct statements of political philosophy in the history of writing. Identify the five basic propositions that constitute Jefferson's philosophy of government.
Proposition I: All men are created equal.
Proposition II: They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights
Proposition III: Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
Proposition IV: To secure these rights governments are instituted among men
Proposition V: ...
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