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Just A Few Important Words About The Declaration Of Independence

Artist John Trumbull's <em>Declaration of Independence</em>. It can be seen in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
Library of Congress
Artist John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence. It can be seen in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

"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."

It's Independence Day. Let's take a break from parades, patriotic songs and pyrotechnics to think about the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

The Declaration of Independence.
/ National Archives
National Archives
The Declaration of Independence.

The line at the top of this post has the words that are probably most remembered. But today, let's focus on a few words and phrases that have not have gotten as much attention. They are important in understanding the messages that were sent by Thomas Jefferson and those who helped him write the declaration.

For guidance, we turned to Stephen Lucas, the Evjue-Bascom professor in the humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He's the author of "The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence," a paper that's one of the first things you see on the National Archives' Web pages about the declaration.

-- "Necessary," "one people" and "another"

Jefferson got right to the point in the introduction:

"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 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."

"Necessary," according to Lucas, "is the most important word" in that section. It makes the case that colonists had no choice. They had to break away.

Thomas Jefferson, president, statesman and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
/ National Archives
National Archives
Thomas Jefferson, president, statesman and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

It's also a word that rebutted a British view. "It was very important to the British that the colonists be labeled 'rebels,' " Lucas said this week when we spoke to him by telephone. "The colonists wanted to ensure that they not be labeled as rebels." If revolution was "necessary," then they weren't rebels.

That position was supported by the idea that the colonists were "one people" who needed to separate themselves from "another" (the British). They weren't subjects, or second-class citizens in any way. They were equals.

The message wasn't just for American or British audiences. The declaration was telling the world that this wasn't a civil war between rebels and rulers. Potential allies such as the French might have wanted to avoid being part of that type of conflict.

-- "Facts ... submitted to a candid world"

A large section of the declaration is devoted to a list of grievances against King George III. The section is introduced with these lines:

"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. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world."

That last sentence, Lucas wrote in his paper, "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."

"Submitted" is also an interesting word choice. The "facts" were not being "suggested" or "alleged." They were being presented as what Jefferson and the others saw them — the truth.

-- A chiasmus: "Enemies in War, in Peace Friends"

The declaration includes a message aimed straight at the British people. Like their king, it reads, the British were "deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity." (Descent from the same ancestor.)

But, the declaration adds, Americans will treat the British people "as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."

Today, a speechwriter would very likely had ended that section with "enemies in war, friends in peace."

But the declaration employs a chiasmus. That's a rhetorical device in which the second of two parallel phrases is inverted. In this case, "Friends" was placed at the end of the phrase.

The purpose, Lucas said, is to "slow the text." Especially when the line is read aloud, as the declaration would have been to crowds at the time, the chiasmus forces listeners to concentrate on the message: That the Americans were reasonable people being forced to take up arms, but that they would surely be friends with the British again some day.

Obviously, there's much more that could be said about the language of the declaration. In his paper, Lucas digs deep and notes that the declaration "gradually becomes a kind of drama, with its tensions expressed more and more in personal terms."

Today is a good day to study it again, to listen to Morning Edition's annual reading and to see if you agree with Lucas' conclusions.

We hope you enjoy Independence Day.

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.