The Declaration of Independence as the Foundational Document in American History

“The Declaration Committee,” 1876 lithograph print.
Currier and Ives. “The Declaration Committee,” New York, 1876. Copyprint of lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division

In recent years, as primary sources become more central to teaching American history, students have been asked to analyze these documents for their historical and literary significance. Among the most important American documents, most teachers would include the Declaration of Independence along with the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. As Americans prepare for July 4th, it seems appropriate to once again reconsider the foundational text in our history and look at its purpose, rhetorical character, and its themes.

Jefferson on the Purpose of the Declaration

Our lesson The Declaration of Independence: “An Expression of the American Mind” begins with Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to Richard Henry Lee, written 50 years after Independence, about his intentions as the principal draftsman of the document.  Jefferson relates how the decision by the representatives of the states in the Continental Congress “to resort to arms for redress” of grievances against the British government was quickly followed by their recognition that the American stand be broadcast widely in order to win support from the European powers.  Moreover, as Jefferson states in the opening paragraph of the Declaration, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” required them to explain and justify their decision. “This was the object,” he insists, “of the Declaration of Independence.” 

The Sage of Monticello goes on to explain that in making the case for independence he was not required to search out “new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before.” In fact this could easily have become counterproductive.  Rather, he appealed to “the common sense of the subject” and thus couched the appeal in words “so plain and firm as to command . . . assent.” As a leader of the Anglo-American Enlightenment, Jefferson was probably thinking of the model of geometrical proofs where one begins with a set of simple definitions and axioms and works toward proving complex theorems. By the logic of deduction, these proofs demand agreement (i.e., assent).

Jefferson thought this style of argument would be the most appropriate way “to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”  So Jefferson concludes, the Declaration was “[N]either aim[ed] at originality of principle or sentiment, no[r]… copied from any particular and previous writing . . . [it was] intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

The Rhetorical Character of the Declaration

This last clause illuminates the key rhetorical feature of the document. Jefferson was a successful lawyer before he was a congressional representative. His training in the law and the liberal arts education he received would have provided him with models of elevated language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. One vivid example appears in the litany of charges against the King:  “He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Moreover, Jefferson meant for this text to be read aloud throughout the colonies, as it was during the months after Independence.  Being trained as a lawyer, Jefferson used the format of a lawyer’s brief, but he also looked to the “sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right … [to be found in] Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c.His contribution was to “harmonize” these sentiments into one coherent, spirited, and inspiring message.  Ask students to consider the difference between this approach and their contemporary notion of a “mashup.”

Themes and Patterns

Having established what Jefferson thought about his handiwork 50 years after the event, we have to ask about his statement’s accuracy. One needs to look carefully at the text of the Declaration. In our companion lesson on the Argument of the Declaration we include the worksheet The Declaration in Six Parts, which will guide students through the process of close reading.  

Students can find any number of ideas and themes in the text. For example, in the philosophical second paragraph there are eloquent statements about the nature of rights, the purposes of government, and how to know when radical change is appropriate.  Ask students to consider this statement: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed”

Help students read carefully by alerting them to look for emerging patterns. Some suggestions to guide this reading are included in the right-hand column of the worksheet. The argument moves from the necessity of separation from the mother country, to American beliefs about legitimate government, to an argument that the British government is engaged in a concerted effort to establish an “absolute tyranny” over them. In this context, tyranny means political rule designed to destroy the self-government long enjoyed by the colonists. Ask students to choose a few examples from the list of charges against the King and Parliament and show how each one impedes or dilutes the power of the colonists to govern themselves.

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