When heard read out loud the Declaration of Independence is thrilling to hear. The wonderful words that speak of the power each person has to use their individual rights as equals to other people. Thomas Jefferson is most credited or as in the Librivox catalog (2011) all “the Founding Fathers” are credited with writing the document which declared the independence of the thirteen colonies. According to Bazyar (1999) an earlier “weaker” document had been written which Thomas Jefferson “extensively revised.” Thomas Jefferson had to include the input from the representatives of the colonies and he had to balance their different desires while still maintaining their united purpose of forming one government which did not have to answer to the King of the British Empire.
Is the thrill in the words of the Declaration of Independence due to the highly crafted political rhetoric alone? Rhetoric isn’t enough to explain the thrill that every person feels upon listening or reading the Declaration of Independence. Because the document can touch the feelings of so many people I propose that it is an important piece of world literature as well as an important policy document for a newly formed government.
The wording of the Declaration of Independence is so powerful and uplifting it seems that the words have always been known. Maybe that is because earth, nature’s laws and nature’s God are respectfully mentioned in the very first sentence. The first sentence constitutes the whole first paragraph and consists of seventy one words.
Even though the first sentence is such a long sentence it sweeps you along to the strong ending “impel them to the separation” (Jefferson 1776). The “one people” are impelled to separate from the current political situation. They aren’t “in the mood” or considering a break with the king they have been forced into a decision and they have no other choice.
Being impelled to do something isn’t the position of a victim. The colonies’ situation is presented as a wonderful opportunity natural to people of earth; that of rebelling and breaking out into independence. This could be a sentence about many people throughout history but this was about the thirteen colonies and King George. By situating their differences into the whole sweep of history the readers are also ‘impelled’ to take the document seriously. Lucas (2011) writes, “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.”
Political rhetoric uses persuasion to convince someone to come to the same point of view of the author, but that is not how the Declaration of Independence is written. Throughout the whole document are words that emphasize the verb ‘impel’ in the phrase “impel them to the separation.” The idea that the colonies must unite and throw off the king’s power is taken as a given. It is “necessary” and “a declaration” and “causes” exist that make the act of rebellion necessary. The way the document is written assumes no reason to persuade anyone to the appropriateness of the revolution is needed because anyone who could view the situation objectively would come to the same conclusion.
That same assumption that the document is only stating the obvious continues in the Preamble, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” (Jefferson 1776). Jefferson introduces a step-by-step rhetorical device which leads to the conclusion “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.” Lucas (2011) explains this method was called “sorites” in the eighteenth century. So it is not necessary to repeat the predicate “all men are created equal” as the next subject. Instead the personal pronoun “they” is used as the subject, “They are endowed by their Creator unalienable rights.” Then the predicate of that phrase, “unalienable rights” is recognized as being meant as the next subject, “to secure these rights.” In an elegant way once again Jefferson has lead the reader to a conclusion that is not to be denied.
The universal truths and rights that are due to each human being are beautifully declared to be “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson has somehow managed to synthesize the foundational, really basic needs of every human being. These three goals ensure each of us a quality life not a mediocre life, not a horrible life; but one worth living.
Somehow he managed to write about “us” of today’s world when he was addressing the conflict between the colonies and the King in 1776. This is only one example of the ability of Jefferson to write with universal appeal and great insight into human nature. It is this phrase that most reflects the Virtue Ethics of Aristotle which were a part of the popular “Metaphysical” movement of the time.
Aristotle pinpointed ‘happiness’ as a worthy goal and as a way to accomplish a life well lived using moderation and good habits. This is a concept that spoke to many people of Jefferson’s age; not political concept but philosophical; an idea that still resonates with contemporary beliefs as well.
Jefferson managed to gently and forcefully fold into the document many deep truths and concepts that were not obviously addressing the coming revolution. Yet his arguments all logically led to the conclusion that a revolution was the only course forward; that revolution was necessary and inarguably the only way to gain the “inalienable rights” of the citizens of the colonies.
Lucas (2011) writes about the people of the colonies and the English people, “The gulf between them was much more than political; it was intellectual, social, moral, cultural and, according to the principles of nature,” He sums up all the ingredients that make great literature as also being the undeniable reasons for the break between England and the colonies.
Reading the Declaration of Independence and listening to it on the podcast made me read that sentence by Lucas several times. In that sentence he wasn’t only talking about the events of 1776 which were the motivation for writing the document. He was also reflecting the ingredients of the great literature Jefferson offered the world in the document, the Declaration of Independence.
Cadwall, Jim, reader. Founding Fathers of the United States. “The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. Audiobook. www.Librivox.com n.d. Web. 1 Oct. 2011. MP3.
Jefferson, Thomas. United States Declaration of Independence. The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. Adopted 4 July 1776. www.lucidcafe.com. 1 Jan. 2011. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.
Bayzar, Jawaid. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Libertyonline.hypermall.com. 1995-1999. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.
Lucas, Stephen E. The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence. The Charters of Freedom. “A New World is at Hand.” U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. www.archives.gov. n.d. Web. Oct. 2011.