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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 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
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 of observation.
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 4, 1776.(7)
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 preamble.
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
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 events."
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:
Proposition 1: All men are created equal.
Proposition 2: They [all men, from proposition 1] are
endowed by their creator with certain
Proposition 3: Among these [man's unalienable rights,
from proposition 2] are life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness.
Proposition 4: To secure these rights [man's
unalienable rights, from propositions 2
and 3] governments are instituted among
Proposition 5: 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:
Major premise: 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.
Minor premise: The government of Great Britain has
deliberately sought to reduce the American
people under absolute despotism.
Conclusion: 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 security.
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 Government.
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 world.
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 interpreter.
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 toward America.(19)
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
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 American liberty.(21)
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 grievance.(23)
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 of war.(25)
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 Declaration:
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 sacred Honor.
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 famous passages.
(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 , p. 3).
(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, pp. 429-432.
(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
(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
(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 1: 40
(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
(30) Cf. Ginsberg, "The Declaration as Rhetoric," p. 228.