Declaration of Independence

This is a draft of Chapter 2 of The Rhetorical Republic, an unpublished manuscript

During the 1950s a lively debate raged among historians over the character of the American Revolution. Some argued that the Revolution represented the birth of an entirely new style of government, while others argued that the Revolution was made by those of privilege who sought to maintain their power in the face of attempts by the British to reestablish control. Note 1 As is often the case in such disputes, each position had some validity -- the complexity of history defied easy explanation. Indeed, the American government was not a "creation" in the strict sense of that term -- something made out of nothing. The error in even entertaining such a thesis is that a government -- or a system of politics -- forms a seamless web with so much else in a time. Forces from the invention of the printed word through a transformation in the economic system and the evolution of religious practice and belief merge to form the time known as the enlightenment. The American Revolution was an expression of that time in politics and government.

To see a seamless web as our metaphor may, however, blind us to the power of human choice in the Revolution; for the various hallmarks of the Enlightenment were not so much entailed, one in another, as an evolving world -- now familiar -- emerged from the day to day choices of people who adapted one dimension of life to another. Thus, an examination of the Revolution requires a complex balancing of the creative powers and constraints of choice. That the Declaration is discourse reminds us that a part of this web of the enlightenment is a theory of rhetoric. A theory of rhetoric frames relationships among language, human choice, and social influence. To understand the Declaration as a rhetorical document entails our locating these relationships in the document.

One other characteristic of this view of the Declaration requires particular attention: locating human choices within a web of complex interacting forces suggests that such moments are not perfectings, but simply significant moments in a proceeding history. As a result, we become interested in the "imperfections" in the moment. Of course, we do not mean "imperfections" since that word implies a criterion for perfection which is what we have just rejected as a model. Rather, we are interested in discussing the contradictions with which human choice struggles (with the same caveat -- the term "contradiction" is intended to describe situated struggle rather than to establish a criterion of logical consistency). As responses in the moments of human choice, documents such as the Declaration do not escape contradiction, instead the unresolved contradictions of the moment become a part of the text and as the texts become historical memory they carry the contradictions forward. Some such contradictions at the moment of the American founding are obvious -- slavery is a particularly vivid example -- other more subtle ones characterize its rhetoric. A full understanding of the rhetorical Declaration requires exploring these contradictions.

Thus, we will spend our time with the Declaration of Independence to discover its relationship to its moment and the power that it bequeaths to the American experience since. Our interest is particularly focused on the relationship of rhetorical power and governmental expression. As a situated rhetorical act, the Declaration performs the power of rhetoric to govern. It thus provides us a situated moment from which to understand the relationship which shaped its time. We thus can glimpse the historical memory from which our later acts sprang.

Framing Rhetorical Action:

The Power Over Their Lives

The Declaration of Independence was a bold act by a group of leaders chosen through typical procedures of the day. The Continental Congress very deliberately selected a committee, and the committee an author facile with the written word. When Jefferson sat to compose the draft, and Congress revised and approved the document, the rhetorical act instantiated certain qualities characteristic of the enlightenment into the first great document of American national governance. A study of these qualities and their instantiation in the Declaration reveals the shape of rhetorical theory at the origins of the American state.

First, the Declaration was an assertion of the power humans possess to control their world. The enlightenment possessed a firm belief in this power. The humanism of the renaissance was brought whole to the enlightenment. In knowledge, the scholasticism of the middle ages had given way to the scientific method of Bacon and Newton. In government, the divine right of kings had yielded to a belief that governments were "ordained by men." The provision of daily bread was conceived as a question of economics rather than happenstance or divine gift.

An emerging sense of the power of humans to create must be seen against the background of the age-old struggle between the limitations on humans who live in a world that buffets them with the power of nature (or a omnipotent God) and the evidence that humans could alter nature (God gave power over the earth to humans in the Garden) to their own ends. The Enlightenment's resolution of this tension was to grant humans control through a search for natural law within which pragmatically elegant choice was possible. Thus, knowledgeable humans transformed an appreciation with the design of the world into a cleverness of technique to extend control over the world in which they lived. The consciousness of technique became a foreground interest in art and architecture. Even as "realism" and "naturalism" dominated art, the search for real and the natural assumed the powers of the artist to develop technique in a direction. Jefferson's love of the architect's art rested in the careful balance of the creative powers of the architect working within the constraints of the natural laws of order and materiality.

The result of this attitude toward the natural as a background for human creativity rather than as a master of human destiny would be a government, the legitimacy of which would be grounded in this image: a government of technique set against the backdrop of nature. Although such a framework would not determine a rhetoric, a rhetorical theory appropriate to the image could be expected to see rhetoric as a technique -- thus an instrumental rhetoric -- with the relationship between language and nature as a central force -- thus a pragmatic rhetoric. Examining the rhetoric of the Declaration, we should seek the strategic resources with which the rhetoric transforms the natural -- the "taken for granted" and material necessity -- into background, and human choice into technique for managing experience. Note 2

These relationships are evident in both the rhetorical style in which the declaration expressed its power and the narrative established by the Declaration. The first two paragraphs carefully legitimize the authority of the Congress in the framework of Enlightenment resources of technique and necessity. The opening paragraph (a single, long sentence) exudes rhetorical strength with an authoritative voice. That is, the sentence enacts knowledge of the principle of human behavior as grounding for the bold action to follow. This license in realism is reinforced in the subordinate clause of that sentence, rhetorically powerful because it is naturally read as a description of contemporary circumstances. The subordinate and independent clauses attain logical force as antecedent and consequent through the moral force of responsibility -- power exercised appropriately. This moral force is the grounding for the strong actions named in the paragraph -- "dissolve," "declare" -- always foregrounded against realism -- "decent respect," "requires," "necessary," "impels." In this text, authority is exercised willfully against the background-license of the circumstances.

In the second paragraph, the principle of the first paragraph is assertively fulfilled in the boldness of the opening clause: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The opening pronoun asserts the locus of the authors' control, but the control is grounded in the authority of a kind of quasi-scientific Cartesian authority -- self-evident fact. The authors' mastery of these facts enhances their authority. Thus, they formed discourse which was boldly assertive of the power of humans to willfully respond with decisive action to their situation.

Of course, the long list of judgements pronounced by commoners on the choices of their King follow these two paragraphs. The authority established rhetorically in the initial paragraphs is carried into this bold act of defiance. In debating the Declaration, this audacity drew heated dispute, yet prevailed. The narratives portray a human King making choices and thus open to the judgement of history. The authority legitimizes the judgement. The power of the movement from the first two paragraphs to the King's abuses is not so much the logical move from principle to application as the rhetorical move to cash authority grounded in Enlightenment notions of rhetorical ethos.

Thus, the rhetorical strategy of the Declaration manages the tension between the "necessity" imposed by situation and the power of human choice within that situation. This combination of action and realism marks the ethos of the responsible rhetor in this discourse: a knowledge of the speaker who derives the power of choice from the mastery of circumstances. This management of power and natural discovery marked the enlightenment's deployment of human faculties to exercise control over the world in which they lived.

From the power of human choice inherently followed a second presupposition common in the Enlightenment: a commitment to life marked by change. The enlightenment was permeated with the sense of history as a force in human affairs. Even in the most conservative circles, the subtle shift from a religion of repetitious ritual to a religion of New Testament millennial time marked a belief that change was an inherent element of human existence. Indeed, such a central concept of Enlightenment as "discovery" crossed the sense of permanence represented by the material continuity of the discovered with the sense of change inevitably occasioned by discovery.

The opening phrase of the Declaration -- "When in the course of human events " -- places the moment in historical time. "Events" and their "course" punctuates time into a narrative of change. Before the clause this phrase introduces has been completed, the dissolution of bonds and assuming of the powers of the earth mark the drama of change. That these are contained in a principle accepts their place in the natural order of things.

This characteristic leads us to expect that we will see a rhetoric of action rather than a rhetoric of ritual -- in Aristotle's terms a deliberative rather than an epideictic rhetoric. Yet, such expectations would be too easy a frame for us to study rhetoric; for the governmental problem presented by a commitment to change was how to maintain stability in the face of such a commitment. In studying the governmental rhetoric envisaged by the Declaration, we should seek the rhetoric's strategy for managing this tension.

A third quality of this discourse -- its unresolved tension between the individual and community as the locus of action -- instantiated a problematic ambiguity of the enlightenment. Tradition has told us that Jefferson the author became extremely jealous of his document as the Congress massaged it into its own corporate statement. Note 3 Franklin is said to have had to calm Jefferson and in death Jefferson had his authorship inscribed on his tombstone so his authorship would be immortalized. His discomfort seems appropriate to one so imbued with the Enlightenment's assertion that human control over change is individual control. Grounded in Locke's philosophy and Descartes' epistemology, individualism required a system of government that could reconcile the social demand for community with the exertion of individual identity.

If we isolate the nouns and pronouns which establish the voice speaking in the Declaration, the document vacillates. Ambiguity controls the titling preamble of the document -- "representatives of the United states of America, in Congress assembled." The term "representatives" associated the individuals identity into the texture of their community, but then immediately they are declared to be representatives of specific institutions -- the states -- rather than representatives of their communities. And it is individuals who "assemble" into governing bodies. The "people" as the expression of the community surfaces in the text at several points, and the pronoun "we" can ambiguously be interpreted to refer to the community, although a reading as the collective representatives here speaking is a sounder construction. But the clearest indication of the constituting of authorship in the spirit of individualism rather than community occurs in the conclusion which returns to the theme of representation. The Declaration is by the representatives "in the name of, and by the authority of" the people. In the final sentence, the pact of mutual aid binds the representatives to one another rather than to the fate of their community. All in all, the ambiguity of voice in this declaration is resolved toward a theory of the individual rhetor, in this case those meeting in Philadelphia speaking collectively. Thus, the character of rhetorical invention is safely invested in the power of the individual author.

The resources of rhetoric to reconcile individual motivation and social community was a natural possibility. But another characteristic of Enlightenment individualism complicated the rhetorical solution: the emphasis on mind. Rhetoric seems inherently social in conception, but Locke's view of language reduced rhetoric to expression of mind and the social function of communication to the mere transmittal of thoughts. Note 4 Jefferson had declared that the three people that he most admired in history were Locke, Newton, and Bacon. Thus, the Enlightenment's commitment to an individualism of the mind posed a problem of tension between the individual and the community. Our study should search for a strategy through which rhetoric can escape the dominance of mind to free its resources to resolve the individual-community tension in government.

The rhetorical theory enacted in the Declaration is recognizable in the written treatises of the time. The power of discourse was authored by individuals with a grasp of their world who sought to control that world through the imposition of their will to guide its evolution. When Jefferson and the other children of the enlightenment came to make a government, the same configuration could be expected to shape the theory of discourse's place in governing. From the heady power of human choice and the powers of language to reconcile permanence and change and individual and community would come the possibilities for constructing Enlightenment government.

The Power of Rhetoric in Government:

The Union of Act and Reason

The term "Declaration" ambiguously merged what we today separate as the speech act of bringing into being by "declaring" and the reasons offered to "justify" that action. The term had entitled documents that were purely of the one sort and documents that were purely of the other. For example, of the two most famous "Declarations" of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the "Declaration" of William of Orange to assume the English throne merely stated the reasons for the action already taken, and the "Declaration" of Rights by Parliament was itself the act. Note 5 This "dual" word use signaled the merger of the two acts themselves in the view of the power of rhetoric in the American Declaration.

On the one hand, the Declaration of Independence carried emblazoned in its title the centrality of rhetorical expression as power: those who made this document chose to declare their independence. The baldness of the assertion still seems remarkable. Legitimacy of governments had been anointed of God, passed by birth, claimed as the fruits of victory, and even sanctioned by popular will. But this document declared the colonies to be free by an act of language. Although the document attributes the right to form government to "the people," the act of independence is not represented as the formalizing of the people's decision; these states in Congress assembled declared it to be so. In this act, it follows the June 7th resolution for independence. In fact, the earlier document does not mention the "people" at all. In its baldness, the act itself elevated rhetoric to a profound importance in government.

On the other hand, the Declaration just as carefully sets rhetoric as a counterpoint to the power to declare. The June 7th resolution had captured the fact and the justice of the declaration: "these colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." The opening passage of the Declaration elaborates:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to 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.It is a remarkable statement of governmental principle. The first phrase locates the action in history, the second recognizes that change is a part of governmental life -- necessity is an element of history. But this is an even more illuminating statement about the character of rhetoric in the context of government. In the term "necessary" the rhetorical dialectic of permanence and change first appears. Necessity as a rhetorical threshold frames the Declaration of Independence with constraint. The passage ends with the obligation to "declare the causes" for the action. The dialectic which sets the tension between permanence and change at the heart of the founding act of government is played out in the demands on rhetoric -- the power of declaration against the obligation to declare cause.

This dialectic is recreated throughout the Declaration. In the second paragraph the power to alter government is constrained by the purposes of government:

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.
There is a logic in these clauses which dictates that change follows abuse by government, and flows toward restoration of ideals violated. Thus, a rhetorical form for change is framed. This form is reinforced in the clause that follows: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes . . ."

The rhetoric thus implied is more subtly complex than the mere force of declaration. The "giving of causes" becomes a language act necessary to the full political act. Viewing logic as a formal study had been characteristic of the early enlightenment. Descartes had quite carefully separated his epistemology from language, and the Port Royalist rhetorics which followed from his work had classified logic as dialectical study, contrasted to matters of style and delivery in language classified as rhetorical arts. Note 6 Francis Bacon's logic in his Advancement of Learning had similarly viewed logic as formal method and rhetoric as delivery. "The invention of speech or argument is not properly invention," he proffered. Note 7 By the latter half of the eighteenth century, a contradictory strain was gaining strength in the more radical ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment -- a reason grounded in common sense. Reasoning became a weaving of appeals to experience which located actions properly in history.

Certainly, Jefferson employs patterns from formal logic in the Declaration as a recognition of the formal theories of logic. Note 8 But the criterion pronounced and instantiated in the Declaration mandates a rhetorical logic: the linkage between action and the giving of causes. In relationship to government, the rhetorical giving of causes instantiates deliberative rhetoric, and the argumentative theory of presumption, a conservative standard that ties change to the giving of substantial reasons. Thus, "reason" itself also obtains the dialectic of permanence and change: change is restricted by the necessity for reasons, but the giving of reasons becomes authorization for change.

The Declaration thus provides a carefully crafted theory of the power of government firmly based in a constrained rhetoric of change. The document derives its power from this theory as it performs its act of declaring independence. In doing so the style it resituated for the rhetoric of American government carves out a particular deliberative reason within Enlightenment politics which potentially presents a tension with the dialectical logic that came to dominate the reasoning of Enlightenment philosophy.

The Form of Deliberative Rhetoric:

The Dialectic of Goodness and Fact

Examinations of the Declaration have traditionally noted the difference in the first two paragraphs with their lofty abstract statement of principles and the specific indictments which constitute the bulk of the document. The division which this organizational scheme treats in fact defines the dialectic which gives the deliberative rhetoric of the document its motivational form.

Those focusing on the list of indictments have traded on the fact that the Declaration was a specific document written at a specific time to justify action. Typically, they have framed the document in the traditional sense of rhetoric -- discourse formulated in its time to persuade others of the wisdom of a just cause. Note 9 Although certainly the document was intended for this purpose, to take this focus and subsequently deemphasize the opening paragraphs obscures important and significant rhetorical qualities of the document.

First of all, with the commitment to a rhetorical logic the deliberative rhetoric of the Declaration adopts also the Scottish Enlightenment's commitment to the supremacy of material fact -- empiricism: "Facts . . . submitted to a candid world . . ." authorize ". . . abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Classical theories of rhetoric had viewed the art as inherently situated. Note 10 This led to an architectonic quality to rhetoric in which invention was a central part of the canon. But by the time of the early Enlightenment the dominant rhetorical theories separated invention from rhetoric, limiting rhetoric to delivery and style. The rhetorics of the Enlightenment sought to reconstitute a rhetoric of persuasion. In doing so, however, they were caught between the possibilities of this empirical rhetoric and the preoccupation of the Enlightenment with the problem of mind. Most of these rhetorics chose the latter as the starting point for their theorizing. Note 11 The Declaration returns more to the earlier tradition by stressing empirical fact and presenting a series of concrete particulars against the King as the reason for independence. Here was the power of choice played out against a natural background.

If the giving of reasons in this rhetoric of government stresses the enlightenment's empirical strain as warrant for change, change is simultaneously guided by an opposing stress: the achievement of abstract values. Jefferson's famous exposition of the self-evident truths and unalienable rights provides the value framework for governmental action. Governmental action is thus located where abstract values meet concrete conditions, the nexus that also defines rhetoric's linkage of values to practical affairs. Note 12 Charges against the King contrast the permanence of these values with his violation in concrete material action in order to justify change.

In the resulting rhetoric of deliberation, the authority of value (the "good") for change is a dialectic of the pragmatic and the moral. The first two paragraphs set the dialectical principles which constitute the morality of government. "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 power of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of nature and of Nature's God entitle them, . . ." The pragmatic guide of "necessity" is firmly imbued with the morality from "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." The rhetorical logic emerges from an instrumental search for a morality which transcends the pragmatic action. This, so-called "positive" view of government, a choice of Locke's view of government over Hobbes, Note 13 forms the central motivating language of the Declaration in a striving for ideal values.

Rhetoric's power is the power to resolve tensions like this into a transcendent understanding. The rhetorical form with which the Declaration invokes both the empirical and the moral character of rhetoric is the listed narratives of the King's abuse of power. These stories transform the logic which ties value to the material into the reasons which justify Independence. For example, "He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers." The action is the King's. Interestingly, the King's action in this case is a rhetorical sin of omission, refusing assent. In this omission he has "obstructed the Administration of Justice." The abstract value of Justice is thwarted through the King's action, and it is the verb which carries the value. Thus, the story is that of a King who withholds his blessing to a value which is assumed a central force of government.

The narrative form casts the actions of government into a historical form which punctuates events so that they become the reasons for governmental actions. The government becomes a player in the creation of human history. Rhetoric's responsibilities are thus fulfilled. The resources of rhetoric at the union of the pragmatic and the moral lend government the ability to operate on this empirical and ideal intersection so essential to the idea of the Enlightenment. Thus is a deliberative government built on rhetorical power.

The Topoi of Rhetorical Government:

Ideographs for Justifying Governmental Action

One of the elements of a community's rhetorical stock is a set of terms and arguments which attain the power to motivate and coordinate action. Michael McGee has called the terms which develop this power "ideographs." Note 14 The lines of arguments which develop the power have long been called "topoi." Perhaps no aspect of the governmental rhetoric of the Declaration is more important to its lasting influence than the ideographs and topoi with which it infuses American government.

Is any paragraph in American political discourse so rich with basic themes of the government as the second paragraph of the Declaration?

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 power from the consent of the Governed.
The Declaration establishes the authority of ideographs which communicate the character of "the good" that has come down in American government to our day. "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" live still as the moral resource of the government. The ideograph of "Rights" gives firm voice to the individual side of the individual-community dialectic which has served to transform the institution of government into a protection for its dialectic antagonist. Note 15 The use of the plural "men" and "they" and the centrality of "Life" make these the rights of individuals. Indeed, today the term "men" is viewed as a compelling sin of the Declaration's authors. And what phrase has been more present in the radical tradition in American government -- the thrust for change -- than "all men are created equal"? This search for equality begins in the phrase.

The treatment of one important ideograph of American experience -- the people -- deserves particular comment. The Declaration says "it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish" governments; yet, the declaration is on behalf of the States. Indeed, other than this attribution of Right the people appear in the Declaration only as victims of the King not as actors in history. We would not expect this status from the followers of Locke. Note 16 But Enlightenment proponents of the people must deal with the tension between the idea of "a people" and individualism as a driving force of history. In its one reference, the Declaration gives us Locke's sense of the people as a protector of Rights, and then takes that power away through the instrumentality of government. Numerous places in the document Jefferson could have chosen "the people" as his term for the locus of action but chooses "these colonies" or "these states" instead. The result is a rather suspicious view of "people" in the document where they are distanced from motivation as a grounding for, rather than a central participant in action.

The "God" of the Declaration has a similar role. He is the Deist God -- the creator who endows humans with rights but does not enter into their politics. Even in the days of the Revolution Deism was not a dominant religion of the colonies. The instantiation of this God into the Declaration has given one strain to the American "civil religion." The official distancing of God from day to day conduct of government that is characteristic of liberal democracies invokes the Enlightenment's elevation of the power of humans over their world. This is the God of the Declaration: a font of morality and first cause of the world who now serves as the ground of moral human action.

Thus, ideographs and topoi which thread through two centuries of American political discourse are framed in the Declaration. That the Declaration is the great document of American Liberalism (in tension with the great Conservative document -- the Constitution) is a common observation. The evidence for this claim rests in the Declaration's place as a symbolic fount of rhetorical themes.

The Rhetorical Government . . .

Over the particulars of the rhetorical character of the government presided an overall assumption of the centrality of rhetoric in governing. The numerous narratives of the King's denial of rights delineate the rhetorical forums that had become the places for American self-government: taking the right of representation in a legislature; "calling together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records"; refusing to replace dissolved legislatures through new elections; depriving citizens of the right to trial by jury.

More positively, the evidence of the importance of rhetoric in government is told in the narrative of the reluctant revolution:

Nor have We been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. (emphasis added)
This is the narrative of a very loud process tracing a rich wealth of rhetorical acts climaxing in the warrant for revolution: the British deafness to the voice of the colonies.

Thus is a voice of rhetoric the central force in governing in the Declaration of Independence. The document structures, and through the structure authorizes, a rhetoric which justifies governmental action in a pragmatic morality of given cause. Woven into the fabric of government was a decorum of rhetoric: demands required the giving of causes; action added the necessity of assent. The model of rhetoric here was inextricably enlightenment. The power of the granting of assent would rest with individuals capable of isolated judgement -- "the consent of the governed." The enlightenments loud commitment to the power of the individual carried with it a more silent dialectical necessity, paradoxically the loud voice of rhetoric; for community, that dialectic necessity without which individualism has no meaning, is built on the power of rhetoric.

. . . and the Suspicion of Rhetoric

But just as surely as rhetoric is an essential element of enlightenment individualism, the commitment to individualism also carried a suspicion of rhetoric. The discovery of this suspicion in the Declaration tells us much about the evolution of American government.

First, in the Declaration, rhetoric's enlightenment face was formed as the expression of opinion. The giving of causes is a necessity because of "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." The Enlightenment's cathedral of the individual was the mind, and the individual was esse not in his or her voice, but in his or her thinking. This derivation from the faculty psychology which shaped much rhetorical theory of the time created a representational rhetoric in which language was formed by the effort to reproduce the thought in the voice. Note 17 Similarly, a voice in the declaration proclaims the power of warrant to be in empirical fact in contrast to rhetorical reason: "To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world." The rhetorical theory enacted in this brief statement of authority displaces rhetoric from the power to warrant to the power to make effective the facts which warrant. Of course, rhetorical power still implicitly connects moral to material, but the elevation of facts as warrant condemns morality to be a silent counterpart of materiality.

Just as central to the enlightenment's suspicion of rhetoric was the central place that it gave to agent centered motives. When the Declaration chose to justify resistance it turned to the actions of the King and portrayed him as an individual exercising free will. Note 18 The rhetorical acts of the King were the actions of an individual. This was not just the expression of the reality of the power of the British sovereign; the Declaration in fact contains in its last paragraph the narrative of the appeals to the colonist's "British brethren." The Declaration positions the struggle of governments to be the struggles against individual abuses. The structure of well-formed narratives which authorize governmental actions acquire a moral style featuring the perpetrators of those actions. The result deprives government of other motives which might open other directions of action.

Agent centered motives lead naturally to agent centered rhetors. The abuses for which the King is condemned are often rhetorical abuses. Thus, rhetoric is the production of individuals -- the expression of individual "good" or "bad" -- and thus the expression of mind. The result is a theory of persuasion in which the opinions of individuals about individuals are the substance of rhetoric. In this image of rhetoric, the powers of rhetoric to create community are subordinated to the agent centered image of the expression of the thought of individuals.

Perhaps the most profound statement of the suspicion of rhetoric, however, is in the document's use of the "Declaration" as the form of expression. An alternative view of rhetoric in government would have warranted independence by narrating how the colonies had already constructed a nation through a rhetoric of governing which created their community. The alternative the Declaration chose brought the nation into existence in the moment of "declaring" its factuality. Thus does rhetoric become the expression of the underlying state rather than the accomplished esse of the nation.


The authors of the Declaration of Independence make a nation with the raw materials of the enlightenment within which they lived and viewed their world. Like any language, the language of the enlightenment arrays tensions caught in the rhetoric of the moments of daily life. The language of the enlightenment rested rhetoric in the vocal expression of underlying ideas. From this image of the rhetorical art, rhetoric became central to the resolution of the tension between the individual and the community. But because rhetoric carried the power of community projected as the necessary counterpart to the invented power of the individual, it also became a suspicious power against which the expressiveness of the individual would forever struggle. Rhetoric is thus elevated to the honor of "harlot of the arts."

We thus can read the two contradictory views of rhetoric in the Declaration. On the one hand, the government of the Declaration is a rhetorical government, created in a rhetorical act, and elaborating its theory of just and functional government in a theory of how rhetoric should function in such a governmental ideology. The most cherished values of government are instantiated in a theory of democratic rhetoric. On the other hand, the Declaration aggressively circumscribes the power of rhetoric to protect the ideology of individualism.

This contradictory view of rhetoric becomes the framework for American government. Eleven years later the Constitution was to provide a structure which institutionalized the contradiction into the same forces of empowerment and suspicion. Note 19 It was to be a government of words -- incredible volumes of words. Yet it was also to be a government that continually contrasted words with actions and valued the latter rather than the former; a government which at times valued eloquence and at times viewed the lack of eloquence as a sign of quality; a government that would develop a rich set of metaphors featuring the rhetorical power that would drive the course of its action; and above all a government that would build temples emblazoned with words which carried its own contradictions. "Actions, not Words."

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2. The rhetorical theory of the Enlightenment has been termed the "managerial rhetoric" because of the assumptions it makes about the function of the rhetorical art. The term comes from the figure of the rhetor managing his world through the strategic manipulation of rhetorical choice.

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3. Jefferson's own account is reported in John Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence (1906; New York: De Capo Press, 1970), p. 144.

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4. John Durham Peters, "John Locke, the Individual, and the Origin of Communication," Quarterly Journal of Speech 75 (November 1989): 392.

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5. For a complete discussion of the history of the usage see Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1978), p. 335.

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6. Wilbur Samuel Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (New York: Russell and Russell, 1956), pp. 342-63.

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7. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric, 367.

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8. Wilbur Samuel Howell, "The Declaration of Independence: Some Adventures with America's Political Masterpiece," Quarterly Journal of Speech 62 (October 1976): 224. Stephen E. Lucas, "Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document," in American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism, ed. Thomas W. Benson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), pp. 82-84.

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9. See particularly the work of Stephen Lucas. For example, "Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document," in Thomas W. Benson, ed. American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1989) 67-130.

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10. Aristotle had spoken of rhetoric as "the art of discovering in the particular case . . . the appropriate means of persuasion." (1355b. I have used the Lane Cooper translation [The Rhetoric of Aristotle (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1932), p. 7].) As Aristotle developed his theory of deliberative rhetoric he cataloged the situations (the issues) with which deliberative rhetoric occurred (1359a-1367a).

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11. Douglas Ehninger labels these rhetorics "psychological" ("On Systems of Rhetoric," Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 131-44).

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12 Aristotle, for example, had noted that rhetoric was an "offshoot" of ethics and politics (1356a).

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13. Hobbes view was that governments were a totally pragmatic necessity to avoid the evil nature of humankind. Locke followed Rousseau's belief that they were social contracts seeking positive ends. Thus, Jefferson's faith in Locke contradicts his famous dictum "that government is best which governs least" and is consistent with the style of Jefferson's activist Presidency.

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14. Michael McGee, "The 'Ideograph': A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology," Quarterly Journal of Speech 66 (February 1980): 1-16.

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15. In fact, the choice of "rights" was a quite overt substitution for Jefferson's original term "ends." Although we do not have a record of the reasoning that went into this decision, certainly the result is to substitute the political ideograph for the more common philosophical term, thus enforcing the power of the ideograph. See Edward Dumbauld, The Declaration of Independence (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1950), p. 54.

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16. Locke's view was that the people were a primary force in history. McGee writes "John Locke's 'people' . . . are perceptive in ways no philosopher could be, powerful in a way no army could match, patient in a way any behavioral scientist would envy" ("In Search of 'The People,'" Quarterly Journal of Speech 61 [October 1975]: 238).

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17. Peters, pp. 389-92.

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18. One of the important issues that has been debated is the about the revolutionary era is why the King was singled out. Political theory of the time often identified the King as the linkage between the people of America and the people of England (see Edward S. Corwin, "The 'Higher Law' Background of American Constitutional Law," Harvard Law Review 42 [December 1928]:402). It would thus be appropriate when declaring independence to isolate the King in the declaration. Earlier actions of the colonists, of course, had appealed to the King in relationship to the actions of the parliament. My argument here is not that the agent-centered indictments flowed from a decision to feature agent. On the contrary, my argument is that the Declaration instantiated the agent centered view that was dominate at the time.

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19. A similar approach to the Constitutional debate will be contained in James Jasinski, "Constituting Citizenship Through Public Argument: The Case of the Constitutional Ratification Debate, 1787-1788," SCA/AFA Summer Conference on Argumentation, August 1991.

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