The Declaration of Independence is the birth certificate of the nation. It stands as one of the most important and daring documents in world history.
The job of drafting the Declaration of Independence fell to the youngest member of the colonial committee, Thomas Jefferson. The most powerful nations of the world in the 18th century were monarchies. The ideas in the declaration set forth by Jefferson and ratified by all the Founding Fathers served to threaten not only Great Britain's colonial empire, but also the colonial empires of other nations in Europe.
Not only did the declaration represent a milestone in the history of the United States, it also turned the political philosophies of the Enlightenment period of18th century Europe into real political practice. In composing the declaration, Jefferson drew on ideas from the Enlightenment, especially those of John Locke.
This blog entry offers an opportunity to examine some of the power and beauty of the historical document. It represents a masterpiece of rhetoric as the foundation of American independence. This writing addresses the introduction and the preamble.
Other parts of the declaration not included here are a list of abuses and usurpations, an explanation of past actions of the colonists, the conclusion of the document with its definition of a new government, and, of course, the required signatures.
By the way, 56 signed the declaration. Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants; nine were farmers and large plantation owners. They were men of well-educated men of means who knew full well that the penalty for their signatures would mean death if captured.
John Hancock supposedly said that Congress, having signed the Declaration, must now "all hang together", and Benjamin Franklin replied: "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." The quote did not appear in print until more than fifty years after Franklin's death.
Every person should become familiar with the Declaration of Independence. It continues to stir thoughts of freedom and liberty in the hearts and minds of Americans and those of others in countries all over the globe.
“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.”
The introduction frames the document within a certain time and within certain conditions, and it also establishes the tone as philosophical and direct.
As the introduction announces the necessity of “dissolving political bands” with the British, it places the colonists' quarrel with England in the noble and natural “course of human events.” Thus, it dignifies the action of revolution as a God-given right within the “Laws of Nature.”
The introduction also serves to “declare,” or announce publicly that certain “causes” impel Americans to take necessary action. The most important word in the introduction is necessary, which in the eighteenth century carried strongly deterministic overtones. No attempts at persuasion are used here – the issue is clear and present: without separation, tyranny will continue to reign.
The introduction sets forth the important idea that something that frustrates basic human endeavors or desires demands immediate opposition. It conveys the imperative that revolution is not merely preferable or justifiable. It is 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.
(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)
The next section of the Declaration, commonly referred to as the preamble, is universal in tone and scope. It outlines a general philosophy of government that makes revolution justifiable, even meritorious. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence is especially important because it builds connections between philosophical theory and practical politics, expresses the fundamental values of the new American government, and also appeals to other nations to accept the new nation.
“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.”The preamble is brief and free of verbiage. In a stately, dignified tone, it is a model of clear, concise, simple statements. In five sentences –202 words – it is magnificent in its compact form. Stephen E. Lucas, noted author of renowned text The Art of Public Speaking declares...
“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.”
(Stephen E. Lucas, “The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence”)
In Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Hugh Blair calls this Style Periodique: "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."
It is unlikely this style was accidental. Thoroughly versed in classical oratory and rhetorical theory, 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. The essay 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 here, in the eloquent cadences of the preamble in the Declaration of Independence.
("Thoughts on English Prosody" was enclosed in an undated letter of 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.)
In a chronological progression of thought, the preamble moves the reader 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 form serves to make the preamble easily understood in its sequential content.
This dramatic scenario sets its first act in the Garden of Eden, where man was “created equal, endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This beginning gives an archetypal quality to the ideas of the preamble and continues the notion set forth in the introduction, that the American Revolution is a major development in "the course of human events."
The opening sentence is not meant to be set apart from the rest of the preamble. Seen in context, 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 unalienable rights.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 men.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.
The propositions of the preamble underlie the conclusion that governments should not be overthrown for trivial reasons; it is not typical for people to change a system that they are accustomed to. However, when the people have suffered many abuses under the control of a totalitarian leader, they not only have the right but the duty to overthrow that oppressive government.
A Living Document
The content of the introduction and the preamble to the Declaration of Independence remain alive and important for the ways they continue to contribute to Americans' historical understanding of their rights as citizens. Because it is a living document, Americans have the ability to recognize gross omissions and correct them, thereby further extending civil rights to women, Blacks, Latinos, gays, Christians, atheists, and others without condition.
A. Equality and the Declaration
Today, Americans continue to believe that the phrase "all men are created equal" is a fundamental "law" in the country. While this phrase was included in the introduction to the declaration, it appears nowhere else in official documents defining rights granted under the U.S. Government.
The Declaration of Independence holds no legal authority in our country, yet it continues to be cited as the foundation for American equality.
Various groups throughout history have criticized American "equality,” referring to the introduction of the declaration for support.
And, critics point to Jefferson's contradictory message regarding equality in reference to slavery. Although Jefferson stated that all men are created equal and have the right to liberty, he ran a large plantation and was a slaveholder.
Other critics point to the use of the word "men" as excluding women citizens. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention used Jefferson's format and style to draft The Declaration of Sentiments, a document declaring women's unfair treatment by the U.S. government and by society. Both as a source for debate about equality and as a definition of the ideological foundation of the new nation, the introduction to the Declaration played a crucial role in defining American values and laws
B. Religion and the Declaration
Michael I. Meyerson, professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, states:
“The phrase 'Nature's God' is not a product of traditional religious denominations, but is generally associated with 18th-century Deism. That philosophy centered on what has been called 'natural theology,' a belief that while a 'Creator' started the universe and established the laws of nature, the modern world saw no divine intervention or miracles.
“The most famous religious phrase in the Declaration—that people are 'endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights' – was not included in Jefferson's original draft. He had written that people derive inherent rights form their 'equal Creation.' The iconic language was added by a small committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.”
(Michael I. Meyerson, “Was the Declaration of Independence Christian?” The Wall Street Journal, July 5 2012)
According to Meyerson, the framers didn't see such nondenominational language as divisive. They believed it was possible—in fact desirable—to have a public expression of religion that is devout, as long as it recognizes and affirms the variety of belief systems that exist in our pluralistic nation.
A Needed Clarification
The Declaration of Independence wasn't signed July 4, 1776.
On July 1, 1776, the Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia, at what is now known as Independence Hall. Delegates spent the next few days debating and revising the Committee of Five's draft.
After adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, they didn't sign it for roughly another month because New York's delegates weren't authorized to vote in favor of independence until July 9, and it also took two additional weeks for the declaration to be produced in its final printed form. Most delegates signed the official declaration August 2, but at least six others didn't sign it until later, and two more (Dickinson and Livingston) never signed it at all.
The public did not learn who had signed the engrossed copy until January 18, 1777, when the Congress ordered that an "authenticated copy", including the names of the signers, be sent to each of the thirteen states.This copy, the Goddard Broadside, was the first to list the signers.