After the (Tea) Party: Jefferson and the Declaration

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“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” had a multitude of goals and audiences both internal and external, but at its core it had a simple purpose: to formally establish the united colonies as sovereign nations. The Americans had pitted themselves against the mightiest armed force in the world – and gleefully bloodied its nose on several occasions. The colonists were confident but knew they could not prevail against the gigantic British empire without help. In the terms of 18th century international statecraft, the conflict had, up until then, been considered internal; insurrection rather than revolution. So long as the colonies remained colonies, British subjects of Britain’s King, their struggle would perforce be viewed as a civil war. The other great powers of Europe might applaud the upheaval, but unless they were prepared to declare war on Britain, which they were not yet ready to do, they would not, could not, be directly involved in the internal affairs of another country. The civil war must become a war of independence before other nations could safely render aid on the colonists’ behalf. The Americans had to escalate.

A mere declaration, however bold, was not sufficient. The powers of the world, virtually all of them monarchies, had to be convinced that the colonies were entitled to depose their king and claim the same international rights of statehood. The Second Continental Congress chose Thomas Jefferson to do the convincing.

Jefferson took an elegant approach to the problem. Undoubtedly aware that the classic syllogism would not bear the complexity of the issue, he employed a structure that would, many years later, be closely identified with the Toulmin model of argument.

Artfully setting the stage and introducing his supporting claim in the introduction, Jefferson established the warrant of his argument in the preamble. The warrant was, in fact and intentionally, nothing new to his audience. In three sentences, with five propositions building one upon another, Jefferson distilled what John Locke and others had already propounded:
1.) All men are created equal.
2.) They have certain natural rights.
3.) Among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
4.) People institute governments to secure these rights.
5.) If their government fails to secure these rights, the people are entitled to alter or abolish it.

Without yet mentioning America or Britain, Jefferson had defined the basic premise of his argument, a premise already familiar to and accepted by most of his audience.

Next, he commenced to build the support, what was actually the most crucial argument of all. Virtually everyone in his intended audience already agreed that it was a people’s right to throw off a tyrannical government, but did the conditions exist in the American colonies to legitimize such a revolution? To prove this Jefferson had to convince his readers of two things: one far easier to accomplish than the other.

To achieve his first and simplest goal, to show that George III, King of Britain, was in deeds and in facts a tyrant, Jefferson applied centuries of English historical precedent and presented what amounts to a legal bill of indictment; over two dozen carefully ordered and even more carefully worded grievances against the British King and his government. Tyranny is a far from petty crime and is certainly perpetrated “with malice aforethought.” Evidence presented against the accused should be weighty, verifiable, and evince an obvious conclusion of premeditation. The bill of indictment, taking up close to two-thirds of the entire document, accomplished those ends leaving little room for denial of the facts and even less room for rebuttal regarding the legitimacy of the actions. The wording of the list of grievances, particularly the opening and closing statements, also fulfill a secondary requirement by displaying the colonists’ “patient sufferance” during this “history of repeated injuries and usurpations” and noting that they had done all they could do to redress the issues.

The second and more difficult clause of the Americans’ supporting argument was to convince the leaders of the world that the king had perpetrated these acts upon a “people,” more specifically a people separate from the people of Britain. This was absolutely vital. Jefferson had to make the point that the colonists were “American”, not “British”, subjects of the King George III. Unlike a large percentage of the colonists, the average Briton did not view his king with displeasure and certainly had no desire to abolish the government. The colonists must be identified as a distinct “people”, or it would invalidate the argument’s foundational warrant. To accomplish this, Jefferson took an oblique approach. He begins in the introduction, where the audience sees “one people” dissolving their bonds with “another.” Then picking up again in the litany of grievances, he repeatedly juxtaposes words like “us” and “our” against “he” and “his.” Finally, in his denouncement of the British people as a whole for their own ignoring the colonist’s appeals, Jefferson’s language artfully distances the Americans further and further from the British. By referring to “our British brethren,” Jefferson simultaneously invokes the ties of common heritage and infers a separation. He says, in effect, that though they be related, they are two peoples. Then reminding the British and the rest of his audience of “the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here” he continues to drive that point home. Jefferson firmly ends the issue with an emphatic statement that the American people must reluctantly bow to the inevitable and regard the British the way any sovereign nation regards the other nations of the world: “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

Having fulfilled his requirements, provided warrant and support, Jefferson had only to conclude the Declaration with his claim. He does so in a way that is at once direct and moving. The last sentence in the conclusion, particularly the first phrase, still rings in the hearts of anyone who has ever read it and even those who have only heard it.

“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.”

 

Until next time…

(Disclaimer: Okay, y’all. I tried to talk him into condensing this a smidge, but he wouldn’t budge. Would. Not. Budge. Marines have a way of being stubborn like that. “No,” he said, “It needed saying before we continue with the corporations as the not so new bad guys thing.” Sigh. Bear with us. There is a method to our madness. Later, y’all.)

 

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