The Declaration of Independence as an Argument

Looking back on the Declaration of Independence almost 50 years later, Thomas Jefferson explained that the document’s purpose was never meant to be thoroughly original; its purpose wasn’t to articulate anything that hadn’t be said before, but to make the case for the American colonies in plain terms and persuade the world to see common sense. “It was intended to be an expression of the American mind,” Jefferson explains. He goes on to claim that “[the Declaration’s] authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day.” (Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825)

Jefferson finished his timeless defense of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in little more than two weeks, and like most writers, he was no stranger to the revision process. Between the Committee of Five and the Second Continental Congress, there were 86 edits to the document. The Second Continental Congress removed whole sections. Jefferson was most angered by the removal of one particular clause, a clause blaming the King for forcing the slave trade upon the American colonies.

The final draft of the Declaration of Independence contains a preamble, a list of grievances, a formal declaration of independence, and signatures.

Preamble

This first part of the Declaration contains an assertion of individual rights. Perhaps the most famous line states, “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.” This part goes on to say that if the government tries to take these rights away, the people have the right to form a new government. Jefferson also addresses a counterclaim in this section, acknowledging that “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…” He counters by reminding his audience of the “long train of abuses and usurpations” that makes it “…their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Grievances

The longest part of the Declaration begins with "He has refused his Assent to Laws" and goes on to list the unfair actions of the British king and Parliament. In their complaints, the colonists make it clear that they are angry with the British king and government for taking away their rights as English citizens. They point out that the king has ignored or changed their colonial governments, as well as their rights to a trial by jury. The colonists accuse the king of sending a hired army to force them to obey unjust laws. They say the king is “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Note: Because the norms and structure of argumentative writing in the 18th century were different than they are in the 21st century, students might be confused about why the Declaration does not use the kind of evidence they are required to present in an essay (statistics, citations, etc). After all, the list of grievances that serves as the Declaration’s evidence seems largely anecdotal by today’s standards. To minimize confusion, we recommend focusing on the Declaration’s claim and underlying assumption (big idea), which are especially applicable to the writing standards of 21st-century classrooms.

Formal declaration of independence

The final paragraph, beginning with "We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America," affirms that the 13 colonies are free and independent states. It breaks all ties with the British government and people. As independent states, they can make trade agreements and treaties, wage war, and do whatever is necessary to govern themselves. This formal declaration of independence ends with important words. The words tell us what the signers of the Declaration of Independence were willing to give up for freedom: “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Signatures

There are 56 signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Fifty men from 13 states signed the document on August 2 in 1776. The other six signed over the course of the next year and a half. As the President of the Second Continental Congress, John Hancock signed first. He wrote his name very large. Some of the men abbreviated their first names, like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. All of the signers risked their lives when they signed the Declaration of Independence.

Legacy of the argument

Contrary to popular belief, the words of the Declaration of Independence did not gain immediate prominence. In fact, they remained obscure for decades. And yet the spirit of the Declaration caused ripples almost immediately, most famously with the French Revolution in 1789. The Haitian Revolution followed soon after, and the subsequent decades would see many Latin American countries continuing the fight for independence from colonial powers.

Within the U.S., the women’s suffrage movement adapted the Declaration of Independence for their cause, asserting in the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments that “all men and women are created equal.” Meanwhile, the country’s celebrations of independence haunted enslaved people and abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, whose 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” pondered the nation’s shortcoming despite its dedication to values like liberty. As Douglass said, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
 

Last updated: June 7, 2017

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