The Declaration of Independence (task 3, p. 98)
The American Revolution was full of great writing. Not the kind of writing meant for entertainment (although it had that function, too), but of writing that attempted to convey arguments, to justify actions and to convince readers to support the revolutionary cause – or be loyal to the king! This was the age of the pamphlet and the broadsheet, short publications aimed at mobilizing and educating the people. Hundreds of thousands of them were printed during the seven-year-long War of Independence. None was to prove more important that the one issued on 4 July 1776 – the Declaration of Independence.
It was surprising, therefore, that the job of writing this declaration was given to a relatively young, unknown delegate to the Continental Congress, thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson. But this proved an inspired choice as the declaration is now one of the best known political statements in the world.
In the opening paragraphs of the declaration, Jefferson is addressing all the countries of the world, “mankind” and posterity – that is, you. His job is to set out arguments which will justify the break that the thirteen English colonies of America have made with the sovereign, King George III of Great Britain. To do so he starts by appealing not to specific complaints, but to the universal truths that philosophers of the Enlightenment believed they had found. Follow his arguments closely. They underlie every revolution that has occurred from that day to this.
The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America – July, 1776
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 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.
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. – 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 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.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. …
[Here follow a series of misdeeds by the British monarch King George. After listing these comes the logical conclusion that it is therefore necessary to break away from the British crown.]
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 the 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.
DISCUSSING THE DECLARATION
- What reason does Jefferson give in the opening paragraph for making this declaration?
- What truths does he claim are “self-evident” – that is, unquestionably true? Do you agree?
- According to this declaration, why are governments formed and from where do they get “their just powers?”
- Jefferson argues that most people would rather suffer a poor government than change it. Do you agree? Why?
- In contrast to accepting poor government, Jefferson portrays Americans as having a “duty to throw off such government.” What reasons does he give for this?
- What does he accuse King George III of trying to do to the American colonies?
The style of this declaration is rhetorical – that is, it sets up a series of questions which it then proceeds to answer through logical arguments. Behind these answers lie counter-arguments that are not shown in the text, but which any reader of the day would have recognized. In the following exercise you will be given some of these counter-arguments. See if you can match them against the opposite views Jefferson uses in the text to justify declaring independence.
- Subjects of King George owe their loyalty to him and Great Britain.
- King George has a God-given right to rule his kingdom.
- There is a necessary difference of status among the subjects of his kingdom, starting with King George and continuing through the aristocracy down to the common people. Each has a God-given place in society.
- Only King George’s government has the right to decide the laws and rules of the kingdom, however much subjects might disagree.
- Only a traitor would attack the king.
The picture below shows New Yorkers peeking at a rendition of the signing of the Declaration of Independence carved out of 900kg of cheese by “cheese artist” Troy Landwehr. Which events in Norwegian or world history would you like to see depicted in cheese? Make a short list and then discuss in class.
to convey å formidle
to justify å rettferdiggjøre / å rettferdiggjere
sovereign regent, monark
the Enlightenment opplysningstiden/opplysningstida
unanimous enstemmig, samstemmig / samrøystes
to dissolve å oppløse, å avvikle / å løyse opp, å avvikle
to declare å erklære
to impel å tvinge (til), å drive (til)
endowed skjenket, gitt / skjenkt, gitt
to derive å hente, å få
consent samtykke, enighet / samtykke, semje, einigheit
to abolish å avskaffe
prudence klokskap, forsiktighet / klokskap, varsemd
transient kortvarig, forbigående / kortvarig, forbigåande
usurpation det å tilrane seg makt / det å rane til seg makt
to evince å røpe, å vise
assent samtykke, godkjennelse / samtykke, godkjenning
rectitude riktighet, rettskaffenhet / det rette
to absolve å løse, å frita / å løyse, å frita
to levy her: å starte, å føre
Providence skjebne, forsyn