Guide Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750–1990

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Like the rest of the Declaration, the preamble is "brief, free of verbiage, a model of clear, concise, simple statement. Each word is chosen and placed to achieve maximum impact. Each clause is indispensable to the progression of thought. Each sentence is carefully constructed internally and in relation to what precedes and follows. In its ability to compress complex ideas into a brief, clear statement, the preamble is a paradigm of eighteenth-century Enlightenment prose style, in which purity, simplicity, directness, precision, and, above all, perspicuity were the highest rhetorical and literary virtues.

One word follows another with complete inevitability of sound and meaning. Not one word can be moved or replaced without disrupting the balance and harmony of the entire preamble.

The stately and dignified tone of the preamble--like that of the introduction--comes partly from what the eighteenth century called Style Periodique, in which, as Hugh Blair explained in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, "the sentences are composed of several members linked together, and hanging upon one another, so that the sense of the whole is not brought out till the close.

Of the other four, one ends with a four-syllable word "security" , while three end with three-syllable words. Moreover, in each of the three-syllable words the closing syllable is at least a medium- length four-letter syllable, which helps bring the sentences to "a full and harmonious close. It is unlikely that any of this was accidental. Thoroughly versed in classical oratory and rhetorical theory as well as in the belletristic treatises of his own time, Thomas Jefferson, draftsman of the Declaration, was a diligent student of rhythm, accent, timing, and cadence in discourse.

This can be seen most clearly in his "Thoughts on English Prosody," a remarkable twenty-eight-page unpublished essay written in Paris during the fall of Prompted by a discussion on language with the Marquis de Chastellux at Monticello four years earlier, it was a careful inquiry designed "to find out the real circumstance which gives harmony to English prose and laws to those who make it.

Although "Thoughts on English Prosody" deals with poetry, it displays Jefferson's keen sense of the interplay between sound and sense in language.


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There can be little doubt that, like many accomplished writers, he consciously composed for the ear as well as for the eye--a trait that is nowhere better illustrated than in the eloquent cadences of the preamble in the Declaration of Independence. The preamble also has a powerful sense of structural unity. This is achieved partly by the latent chronological progression of thought, in which the reader is moved from the creation of mankind, to the institution of government, to the throwing off of government when it fails to protect the people's unalienable rights, to the creation of new government that will better secure the people's safety and happiness.

This dramatic scenario, with its first act implicitly set in the Garden of Eden where man was "created equal" , may, for some readers, have contained mythic overtones of humanity's fall from divine grace. At the very least, it gives an almost archetypal quality to the ideas of the preamble and continues the notion, broached in the introduction, that the American Revolution is a major development in "the course of human events.

Because of their concern with the philosophy of the Declaration, many modern scholars have dealt with the opening sentence of the preamble out of context, as if Jefferson and the Continental Congress intended it to stand alone. Seen in context, however, it is part of a series of five propositions that build upon one another through the first three sentences of the preamble to establish the right of revolution against tyrannical authority:. When we look at all five propositions, we see they are meant to be read together and have been meticulously written to achieve a specific rhetorical purpose.

The first three lead into the fourth, which in turn leads into the fifth.

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And it is the fifth, proclaiming the right of revolution when a government becomes destructive of the people's unalienable rights, that is most crucial in the overall argument of the Declaration. The first four propositions are merely preliminary steps designed to give philosophical grounding to the fifth.

At first glance, these propositions appear to comprise what was known in the eighteenth century as a sorites--"a Way of Argument in which a great Number of Propositions are so linked together, that the Predicate of one becomes continually the Subject of the next following, until at last a Conclusion is formed by bringing together the Subject of the First Proposition and the Predicate of the last.

God is omnipotent. An omnipotent Being can do every thing possible.

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Although the section of the preamble we have been considering is not a sorites because it does not bring together the subject of the first proposition and the predicate of the last , its propositions are written in such a way as to take on the appearance of a logical demonstration. They are so tightly interwoven linguistically that they seem to make up a sequence in which the final proposition--asserting the right of revolution--is logically derived from the first four propositions.

This is accomplished partly by the mimicry of the form of a sorites and partly by the sheer number of propositions, the accumulation of which is reinforced by the slow, deliberate pace of the text and by the use of "that" to introduce each proposition. There is also a steplike progression from proposition to proposition, a progression that is accentuated by the skillful use of demonstrative pronouns to make each succeeding proposition appear to be an inevitable consequence of the preceding proposition.

Although the preamble is the best known part of the Declaration today, it attracted considerably less attention in its own time. For most eighteenth-century readers, it was an unobjectionable statement of commonplace political principles. As Jefferson explained years later, the purpose of the Declaration was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of. Far from being a weakness of the preamble, the lack of new ideas was perhaps its greatest strength.

If one overlooks the introductory first paragraph, the Declaration as a whole is structured along the lines of a deductive argument that can easily be put in syllogistic form:. As the major premise in this argument, the preamble allowed Jefferson and the Congress to reason from self-evident principles of government accepted by almost all eighteenth-century readers of the Declaration.

The key premise, however, was the minor premise. Since virtually everyone agreed the people had a right to overthrow a tyrannical ruler when all other remedies had failed, the crucial question in July was whether the necessary conditions for revolution existed in the colonies.

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Congress answered this question with a sustained attack on George III, an attack that makes up almost exactly two-thirds of the text. The indictment of George III begins with a transitional sentence immediately following the preamble:. 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.

Now, words into the Declaration, appears the first explicit reference to the British-American conflict. The parallel structure of the sentence reinforces the parallel movement of ideas from the preamble to the indictment of the king, while the next sentence states that indictment with the force of a legal accusation:. 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.

Unlike the preamble, however, which most eighteenth-century readers could readily accept as self-evident, the indictment of the king required proof. In keeping with the rhetorical conventions Englishmen had followed for centuries when dethroning a "tyrannical" monarch, the Declaration contains a bill of particulars documenting the king's "repeated injuries and usurpations" of the Americans' rights and liberties. The bill of particulars lists twenty-eight specific grievances and is introduced with the shortest sentence of the Declaration:.

This sentence is so innocuous one can easily overlook its artistry and importance. The opening phrase--"To prove this"--indicates the "facts" to follow will indeed prove that George III is a tyrant. But prove to whom? To a "candid world"--that is, to readers who are free from bias or malice, who are fair, impartial, and just. The implication is that any such reader will see the "facts" as demonstrating beyond doubt that the king has sought to establish an absolute tyranny in America.

If a reader is not convinced, it is not because the "facts" are untrue or are insufficient to prove the king's villainy; it is because the reader is not "candid. The pivotal word in the sentence, though, is "facts. This usage fits with the Declaration's similarity to a legal declaration, the plaintiff's written statement of charges showing a "plain and certain" indictment against a defendant.

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If the Declaration were considered as analogous to a legal declaration or a bill of impeachment, the issue of dispute would not be the status of the law the right of revolution as expressed in the preamble but the facts of the specific case at hand the king's actions to erect a "tyranny" in America. In ordinary usage "fact" had by taken on its current meaning of something that had actually occurred, a truth known by observation, reality rather than supposition or speculation.

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They are the objective constraints that make the Revolution "necessary. No one. They have not been gathered, structured, rendered, or in any way contaminated by human agents--least of all by the Continental Congress. They are just being "submitted," direct from experience without the corrupting intervention of any observer or interpreter.

But "fact" had yet another connotation in the eighteenth century. The word derived from the Latin facere, to do. Its earliest meaning in English was "a thing done or performed"--an action or deed. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was used most frequently to denote an evil deed or a crime, a usage still in evidence at the time of the Revolution. In , for example, Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, noted that "accessories after the fact" were "allowed the benefit of clergy in all cases.

There is no way to know whether Jefferson and the Congress had this sense of "fact" in mind when they adopted the Declaration. Yet regardless of their intentions, for some eighteenth-century readers "facts" many have had a powerful double-edged meaning when applied to George III's actions toward America. Although one English critic assailed the Declaration for its "studied confusion in the arrangement" of the grievances against George III, they are not listed in random order but fall into four distinct groups.

The second group, consisting of charges , attacks the king for combining with "others" Parliament to subject America to a variety of unconstitutional measures, including taxing the colonists without consent, cutting off their trade with the rest of the world, curtailing their right to trial by jury, and altering their charters. The third set of charges, numbers , assails the king's violence and cruelty in waging war against his American subjects. They burden him with a litany of venal deeds that is worth quoting in full:.

The war grievances are followed by the final charge against the king--that the colonists' "repeated Petitions" for redress of their grievances have produced only "repeated injury. First, the grievances could have been arranged chronologically, as Congress had done in all but one of its former state papers.


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  • Instead they are arranged topically and are listed seriatim, in sixteen successive sentences beginning "He has" or, in the case of one grievance, "He is. The steady, laborious piling up of "facts" without comment takes on the character of a legal indictment, while the repetition of "He has" slows the movement of the text, draws attention to the accumulation of grievances, and accentuates George III's role as the prime conspirator against American liberty.

    Second, as Thomas Hutchinson complained, the charges were "most wickedly presented to cast reproach upon the King.

    It also recalls the denunciation, in Psalms , of "the workers of iniquity. From the revolutionaries' view, however, the primary advantage of the wording of charge 10 was probably its purposeful ambiguity. The "multitude of New Offices" referred to the customs posts that had been created in the s to control colonial smuggling.

    The "swarms of Officers" that were purportedly eating out the substance of the colonies' three million people numbered about fifty in the entire continent. But Congress could hardly assail George III as a tyrant for appointing a few dozen men to enforce the laws against smuggling, so it clothed the charge in vague, evocative imagery that gave significance and emotional resonance to what otherwise might have seemed a rather paltry grievance.

    Third, although scholars often downplay the war grievances as "the weakest part of the Declaration," they were vital to its rhetorical strategy. They came last partly because they were the most recent of George III's "abuses and usurpations," but also because they constituted the ultimate proof of his plan to reduce the colonies under "absolute despotism. To some extent, of course, the emotional intensity of the war grievances was a natural outgrowth of their subject.