Study Guide

Declaration of Independence Analysis

By Thomas Jefferson

  • Rhetoric

    Logos

    Not that Jefferson isn't down with some good old-fashioned emotional pathos, but for the most part the form of rhetoric he uses is logos.

    He presents clear reasons why the colonies are declaring independence, including a cause-and-effect explanation and specific offenses for evidence.

    People have natural rights, he argues, which government was created to protect. This government is not only neglecting its purpose, but is doing a whole bunch of other bad things on top of that, so obviously we have to declare independence. Cause: government not doing what it's supposed to do. Effect: we declare independence from that government.

    How logical.

    Government, Jefferson writes, is an institution that derives its power "from the consent of the governed," a.k.a., those people with "unalienable Rights" to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (2). Because of that fact, Jefferson says, "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" (4).

    Makes sense, doesn't it? The people create the government to serve them, therefore they have the right to replace it when need be.

    Moving past the most famous part of the document, Jefferson proves the failures of the British government:

    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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. (8-9)

    Not only does Jefferson state that the government has wronged the people, he sets out to demonstrate exactly how by continuing with a specific (and lengthy) list of evidence. He doesn't make vague, angry claims with nothing to back it up, there are at least twenty-seven specific examples given to support his accusation. No one can say T.J. wasn't thorough.

    Now, Jefferson wasn't all logic and reason, he lets some pathos sneak in there. Phrases like "all men are created equal," "mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable" (5), and "absolute Tyranny" (8) certainly appeal to the more emotional side of the audience.

    Whose heart doesn't flutter a little bit at that famous opening line of the second paragraph? There's no shame in admitting it.

    Jefferson also later describes how the British people were "deaf to the voice of justice," (44) which is a pretty dramatic way to say they didn't respond to a letter. Next time you ask someone for a favor and they ignore you, tell them they were "deaf to the voice of injustice"—and if you just get weird looks, though, you didn't get the idea here…

    Jefferson adds in elegant, dramatic phrases here and there to inspire the reader to support the argument that the colonies must be independent, but overall the document is pretty calm, cool and collected. He uses logical arguments with clearly delineated evidence to support his argument, meaning that the primary rhetorical device in the Declaration of Independence is (drum roll, please) logos.

  • Structure

    Legal Document

    The Declaration of Independence was a legal declaration, meaning that it was signed by delegates to Congress, and once signed, was considered law. It presented a change in the legal status of the nation, which was approved by the existing government. This document is the way that the colonies officially became an independent nation.

    Of course, the colonists had to fight a bit of a war to be recognized as such, but the Declaration was considered the law of the land once it was approved. It's not just one man's thoughts about government, nor does it involve a court, but it did have a real and direct impact on the law of the United States.

    How it Breaks Down

    Introduction

    Jefferson lays out what the document is: an explanation of why the colonies are breaking ties with Great Britain, although without naming names.

    Preamble

    Here's the super famous part, the paragraph where Jefferson discusses the rights of the people with relation to their government. The government exists to protect people's inherent human rights, and Jefferson presents the accusation that the British government has become tyrannical and no longer protects the citizens in the colonies.

    Body, Part 1: Indictment of King George III

    The first part of the body is the list. Jefferson writes a long list of relatively specific examples of the British government, primarily King George III, abusing the colonists and acting despotically.

    Body, Part 2: Indictment of the British People

    Jefferson reminds the readers that the colonists have tried a number of times to plead their case for better treatment, even appealing directly to the British people for support. Nothing worked, but you can't say they didn't make an effort.

    Conclusion

    Because of everything stated above, the good ol' U.S. of A is now independent and can do the things independent countries do. Look at all the signatures of the people who support this decision.

  • Tone

    Rational

    When you read the Declaration of Independence, your first thought is probably not "Wow, what a rational piece of writing." Look closer though.

    Despite the dramatic subject matter, Jefferson's Declaration it is actually pretty level-headed. That's because he lays out distinct reasons for the separation of the colonies from Britain, in a logical progression of ideas, which prove the assertion that the colonies should be independent.

    Rather than just using inflammatory language and trying to drum up some rabble-rousing crowds, Jefferson presents clear, unmistakable evidence.

    For example, after first reminding us that governments were created "from the consent of the governed" (3) to protect the rights of their people, Jefferson claims: "when a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government" (6).

    First, he establishes that government is responsible to its people, before presenting the accusation that the British government has failed in that responsibility and should therefore be replaced. You had one job, Parliament…

    To support that big accusation, Jefferson continues with a list of evidence. He even reminds the reader that the colonists have tried other courses of action: "In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury" (38). He's saying, "Hey buddies, we tried to make this thing work, but the other guys just made it worse."

    It's pretty difficult to read the Declaration of Independence and not be at least somewhat convinced that the colonists have some compelling reasons to ditch the British. Even the final paragraph, where independence is officially declared, is very formal, and includes a reminder of the kinds of things the colonies will be able to do as an independent nation, like "establish Commerce" (46).

    Calm down Thomas—we can see you're excited, but rein it in.

    Jefferson and his team were probably pretty aware of how important keeping this document reasonable and rational was to their cause. They had to be taken seriously. If you've ever tried to get something big and significant changed, you know that there are a few ways to try and get it done, but at some point the other side has to realize you've got your stuff together.

    The colonists had already taken some pretty dramatic action and had some temper tantrums, which rallied some people to their cause and started the Revolutionary War. But this Declaration shows that they're grownups who really understand what they're doing, why they're doing it, and even what the next steps will be.

    In a relatively short document, Jefferson provides an answer to pretty much every argument that could be made for the opposing side, through a logical progression of ideas that makes it a lot harder to fight back without having equally strong evidence on the other side.

    Which the British didn't have, in this case.

    Inspirational

    The Declaration of Independence definitely keeps it rational, but Jefferson does throw in some epic words and phrases that inspire Americans to this day. You do want to be taken seriously when you're declaring national independence, which is a pretty big deal, but ideally you want people to want to agree with you.

    People can be swayed by logical facts, but often they need to feel that something is the right thing to do as well. Good speech writers know this, which is why they throw in moving phrases, like "I have a dream," to accompany their fact-based arguments.

    Pro tip: try to not bore your audience. But also, don't sacrifice accuracy for pizzazz…unless you're playing Scrabble, in which case you'd hit the mother lode.

    Jefferson, in fact, begins the Declaration of Independence by making people feel significant simply for being human. After all, "all men are created equal," and "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" (2). He begins this way to show both American and British folks that the colonists deserve to be treated respectfully, because they're equal to their British overlords.

    If you've been angry about years of being mistreated, someone declaring publicly that you deserve respect is going to lift your spirits. It's even more inspiring when you put this idea into greater historical context, and think about how the hierarchy of class and status had dominated European culture for centuries.

    Until the Enlightenment, claiming everyone was equal would have been laughable. Not like Saturday Night Live laughable, but like "silly peasant, Trix—er, rights—are for kids—er, kings" laughable.

    Many countries had spent centuries believing in the divine right of kings, which was effectively taken down by things like the American Revolution. A governmental body telling every person that they deserved the same treatment as everyone else was a powerful new idea, even if its execution in reality it had some pretty serious limitations.

    Jefferson also uses negative language as an inspirational tool, using more illustrative words to portray the British in a negative light. Reminding people of their oppression would help brew their frustration and anger, and strengthen their determination to fight their oppressors.

    He begins by claiming that the British government has become "destructive" (4) in their role, and goes on to claim that King George III has "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States" (8) These "injuries and usurpations" go against the purpose of government as an institution.

    Then he writes the lengthy list of abuses, including a whole bunch of fun memories such as:

    He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly…He has obstructed the Administration of Justice… For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world…He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat [sic] the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely .paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. (14, 17, 26, 33, 35)

    That last one in particular makes the king look pretty bad. Sending mercenaries to bring "death, desolation and tyranny" to your subjects is not really a hallmark of a good leader.

    The whole list is meant to remind the readers of what they're angry about, by emphasizing the worst things the king (and Parliament) have done, focusing especially on actions that contradict the colonial idea of government being responsible for the rights of the people.

    In doing so, Jefferson inspires the readers to support his argument for independence by stirring up their past and present feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment, in combination with the more positive ideas of equality that are being offered by the colonial government.

    What would you choose, the guy who is apparently about to rain death down upon you, or the one who says that you deserve the right to pursue the life you want, just because you're a human being?

    Let's hope you chose the latter.

  • Writing Style

    Elegant, If Sometimes Wordy

    Writing styles in the 18th century were very different then they are today, which accounts for some of the traits of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. If you were to look at Thomas Paine's Common Sense, you'd see similar types of sentence structure and vocabulary there, even though it's a pamphlet written for the masses.

    It's just how things were back then.

    Pretty Bare-Bones, By 18th-Century Standards

    Although the Declaration might seem wordy, it could be a lot worse. In fact, one scholar says that the second paragraph "capsulizes in five sentences…what it took John Locke thousands of words to explain in his Second Treatise of Government." (Source)

    He's not wrong about that, although compared to today's style of writing, Jefferson seems to use advanced vocabulary and sometimes lengthy sentences to express some fairly straightforward ideas.

    Take the first line, for example (which is, in fact, a paragraph…):

    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. (1)

    What is Jefferson saying here? When a group of people need to separate themselves and become an independent and equal nation, courtesy says that they should explain why they're doing it. Bam. No frills (sort of).

    Jefferson's version isn't super-convoluted or difficult to understand, but it takes up a whole paragraph. Plus, it includes fun phrases like "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," which are a fancy way of saying something simple.

    However, Jefferson's phrases don't feel like he's being wordy for the sake of wordiness. There are definitely writers that do that, who you will encounter eventually, so get excited. T.J.'s writing sounds eloquent and intelligent, and therefore commanding of respect.

    Think about who he's writing for. Jazzing up the sentences with some dignified vocabulary and ideas might give the impression that your country is as advanced and worthy of self-governing as the country from which it's trying to escape. Jefferson doesn't go for violent passion or hilarious wit; he maintains a restrained elegance in his sentences.

    Drama-Rama

    That being said, another effect of Jefferson's elevated style of writing is, conversely, to add a touch of drama. Of course, it's never just one thing or the other—that would take all the fun out of studying history.

    Take this paragraph, for example:

    In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. (38-39)

    Jefferson uses phrases like "most humble terms" and "repeated injury" to add emphasis to what could be a dry government document. He reinforces sympathy towards the cause of the colonists, and antagonism towards the British, through (probably) carefully chosen adjectives and nouns to enhance the story he's telling.

    Overall, Jefferson's writing style in the Declaration of Independence elegant, if a little wordy at times. He takes the opportunity to add a bit of flair and drama without going into a rant or soliloquy, but also turns a fairly simple statement ("We're declaring independence, y'all") into an extraordinary text.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title "Declaration of Independence" is a combination of a title and a statement of fact. The actual document doesn't have a formal title, but it does mention that it's a declaration in the subheading.

    The text is literally a declaration of independence, though, and we only have one of those, so pretty soon it got capitalized to become the Declaration of Independence.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    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. (1)

    A "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" should also require a shorter opening sentence, IOHO. This opening paragraph famously talks about what people should do when they have to break away and start their own nation. Generally speaking, of course, we haven't gotten to America yet. Jefferson just says that those people breaking away, whoever they may be, should explain themselves, implying that he will do just that in the following paragraphs.

    Jefferson sets the stage for the rest of the Declaration by equating the action of these colonies declaring independence with a more grandiose human ideal. The American Revolution is within "the Course of human events" (1). It's not just a weird fringe group asking for something ridiculous, they are in fact part of a noble tradition, and they are following the proper course of action through this very document.

    The next paragraph contains a lot of philosophical ideas about what humans deserve and their role in government, so the first sentence sets up that ideological discussion by instantly making the declaration into a meditation on humanity. Jefferson begins with the vaguest, broadest idea, and then gets steadily more specific, until finally we get the particular facts.

    By the time the reader gets to the nitty-gritty evidence, he or she has already been given the tools to see the colonists' ideological perspective.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    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. (46-47)

    The closing paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is probably the driest, because it's the business part where he actually gets around to, you know, declaring independence.

    In a couple of sentences, Jefferson says that all ties with Britain are gone, the United States is independent, and it can do all the things that free countries can do.

    The sentences are long and kind of wordy, as most official government documents are, because he has to be sure that the statement covers all bases, and doesn't leave any loopholes or room for doubt. It's 18th century legalese.

    Jefferson does throw some elegance in at the final line, where he says, "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" (47). Not only is this a nicer way to end than a list of "all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do" (46), but it gives a sense of camaraderie and unity that is not only inspirational, but again justifies the nation's bid for independence by portraying it as a real, united country.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    The Declaration of Independence is only one parchment long, much of which is just signatures (John Hancock's alone takes up like a paragraph of space—way to be a showboat, Hancock). Yup: this massively important doc is actually pretty short.

    Also, the few big ideas are pretty straightforward and easy to grasp: thanks, Founding Fathers.

    Sure, Jefferson writes in a somewhat elevated language with long sentences, and in a bit of a fancier style than what we normally read now, and with some words in there that aren't used all that much today. It ain't "Good Night Moon," but it's also not Ulysses.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (2-5)
    Jefferson's ideas about the purpose and responsibility of government are drawn from Locke's philosophical writing during the Enlightenment.

    Historical Events

    British government leaving troops in the colonies after the French and Indian War (20).
    The Royal Proclamation of 1763 (30).
    Remember that the Royal Proclamation forbade colonists from settling in the land won from the French in the French and Indian War, denying them land for expansion of the colonies.
    Stamp Act, Coercive Acts, the Tea Act, etc. (27).
    King George III declaring the colonies in a state of rebellion (33).
    King George III hiring Hessians (German mercenaries) to fight the colonists (35).
    Richard Henry Lee, Robert Livingston, and Edmund Randolph, "An Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain," 1775 (40-45).
    This is the address sent to the people of Great Britain to try and gain their support against British oppression, which Jefferson mentions (not by name) because the British people did not respond.

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "The Declaration of Sentiments" (1848)
    Abraham Lincoln, "Gettysburg Address" (1863)
    Charles Sumner, Promises of the Declaration of Independence, and Abraham Lincoln (1865)
    Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
    Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream speech (1963)

    Pop Culture References

    Independence Day (movie, 1996)
    National Treasure (movie, 2003)
    Assassin's Creed III (video game).
    There is a side quest in this game involving Benjamin Franklin, and cutaway scenes showing the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
    Liberty's Kids, #13, "The First Fourth of July" (2002). This animated children's show looking at the American Revolution through the eyes of teenagers included, unsurprisingly, an episode about the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
    Hamilton (musical, 2015)
    Although the events in the musical take place after the Declaration of Independence was completed, it's quoted in a couple of songs, including "The Schuyler Sisters" and "Cabinet Battle #1."

  • Trivia

    A lucky intern recently found an incredibly valuable original draft of the colonists' plea to the British people in the attic storage of a historic house in New York City. Talk about earning college credit…(Source)

    An online poll found that Americans see the Declaration of Independence as the most influential document in American history. Which kind of makes sense, because without it there wouldn't be American history. Well done, Americans. (Source)

    The night of July 4, 1776, the Declaration was taken to the printing shop of John Dunlap and an unknown number of copies were printed and sent out to local legislatures and military leaders, including George Washington. This first printing is known as the "Dunlap Broadside," and there are twenty-six known copies remaining in existence. This was a time before, you know, electricity was a thing, so they had to use old-fashioned methods like paper copies to spread the word. (Source)

    Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted on June 12, 1776, for the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was really into his home state of Virginia, so how lucky for him to have such a relevant document nearby just waiting to be a source of inspiration for him. (Source)

    Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on a portable writing desk, which he superstitiously kept because, you know, the Declaration turned out pretty well. The desk is still at Monticello. (Source)