The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (hereafter called the “Declaration”) is the hook that announces to the reader what the document will do. It argues that “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” responsible people will explain why. This is an interesting way to establish ethos at the very beginning, as the writers have been called “the ringleaders of the American revolt” and “a few ambitious, interested, and designing men,” and worse, by such figures as George Campbell, who also called their supporters “deluded fellow subjects.” If responsible people who have “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should explain their causes, and they are explaining their causes, they must be responsible people. It is only logical.
It is the second paragraph, however, that is most famous, and deservedly so. It introduces what Aristotle would call an “enthymeme” with five tightly linked assumed premises. However, while assumed premises are often tacit and hidden, in this case the assumptions are overtly and boldly admitted with the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” simultaneously acknowledging that they are not going to try to prove these claims, but also challenging the reader to dispute them. These assumptions are
- 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
These are pretty grand assumptions. If we accept them, it follows that what they have to do is show that the British government is destroying the unalienable rights of the colonists to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And this is exactly what they try to do, in 29 paragraphs that read like the whereas clauses of a committee resolution. Though most of the disagreement is with the British parliament, the writers and signers of the Declaration choose to focus their anger on the king, George III. They document a multitude of grievances, including
- refusing to pass necessary laws
- dissolving legislative bodies that don’t agree with him, or causing them to meet in difficult, inaccessible places
- preventing population increase by obstructing the naturalization of foreigners
- appointing judges and other officers that work for him instead of the people
- keeping a standing army in the colonies in peacetime and making the colonists provide food and lodging for soldiers
- preventing the colonies from trading with whomever they want to
- taxing the colonies without their consent
- depriving the colonists of jury trials and sending them to England for trial on false charges
- forcibly recruiting American sailors into the Royal Navy
- and more
Blaming George III for all this is clearly a rhetorical move. The king becomes a convenient scapegoat for all this misery, whereas parliament is a more diverse and complex foe. Another reason is that the American revolution pits Enlightenment values against feudal monarchy. In Britain, the parliament provides aspects of democratic rule, but the system still includes the House of Lords and a monarch. The Enlightenment and feudal trappings coexist. The Americans, however, are declaring themselves no longer to be subjects of the king, as well as declaring that “all men are equal,” denying nobility as a concept. This is a big deal.
Having made these arguments, the Declaration concludes that the united colonies are absolved of any allegiance to the British crown and henceforth have all the rights and responsibilities of free and independent states.
Strictly speaking, the argument is perhaps proven, but the initial premises are not. Of course, Englishmen immediately asked how men who owned slaves could believe that all men were created equal. However, charging hypocrisy is not the same as arguing against the premise. One can also argue in favor of tradition and preserving the monarchy, but even at the time, that sounds like arguing against progress and history. Stating that the premises are “self-evident,” which initially looks like an argumentative weakness, turns out to be a rhetorical trap and a brilliant move. It is a very interesting document.
Update: Here is a much more detailed rhetorical analysis of the Declaration with lots of historical context:
The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence by Stephen E. Lucas