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.