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Rhetorical Devices in The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America

A Statement of Truths: Thomas Jefferson builds the Declaration of Independence on the foundation of a set of truths about how humans ought to live and govern one another. The rest of the document, its claims and complaints, are all based on these truths. The truths are as follows, in paraphrased form: humans are of equal value, they inherently possess the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; government ought to be built by its people in order to protect their collective rights, and that any government which fails to do so ought to be changed—or destroyed and rebuilt—by its people. By setting forth these axioms at the start, Jefferson is able to built a logical case for American independence from Britain.

An Airing of Grievances: A significant portion of the Declaration of Independence consists of a list of grievances aimed at King George III of Britain. The list makes the overarching argument of the document more persuasive; it explicitly details numerous pieces of evidence against Britain. The grievances, in their volume and specificity, produce a great deal of rhetorical force.

A Seizing of Liberty: One of the strongest moves in the Declaration of Independence is in its claiming of independence. After multiple paragraphs laying out the colonies’ reasons for breaking free of Britain, the final paragraph declares “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” While the founders wished to explain their actions and intentions, the document is ultimately a decisive seizing of freedom and independence, not a request or an argument.

Appeals to Ethos, Pathos, Logos: The Declaration of Independence employs all three of the rhetorical modes of persuasion Aristotle set forth: ethos, the ethical appeal, pathos, the emotional appeal, and logos, the logical appeal. Jefferson uses ethos by presenting the American cause as serious, well-conceptualized and worthwhile, all qualities made clear by the honest tone and intellectual rigor of the declaration. He uses pathos to appeal to the shared roots and blood ties between the Americans and the British. Finally, he uses logos to establish basic principles of political conduct and then build a powerful case against King Charles III.

Rhetorical Devices Examples in The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America:

Text of the Declaration

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"we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor...."   (Text of the Declaration)

The final clause of the Declaration of Independence is among its most rhetorically powerful. It is a statement of national solidarity. It returns to and reiterates the “we” so boldly set forth at the start of the second paragraph, attempting to carve out a collective American identity. It is ultimately a rallying cry, a call for Americans to care for one another with their “Lives,” “Fortunes,” and “Honor” in the fight against Britain.

"with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence,..."   (Text of the Declaration)

This is an intriguing clause because it is not clear in what sense the founders looked to “Divine Providence” for reliance. On the more literal end of the spectrum, such reliance could entail an expectation of divine insight and assistance. On the more figurative end of the spectrum, the statement could be a secular expression of faith—a sense, an optimism even, that ethical action will beget favorable outcomes. This theme of Divine Providence has appeared in the writings of more recent American politicians. One notable example is the Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In that speech, President Lincoln expresses a confidence that the cause of the Union in the Civil War—the eradication of slavery—is divinely mandated. It is a strong claim to say that one is performing God’s work, but in the right hands it makes for powerful rhetoric.

"are, and of Right ought to be Free..."   (Text of the Declaration)

It is during this passage that Jefferson claims the independence of the colonies. The verb structure Jefferson uses in this statement is complex: “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free.” The verb “to be” is presented in two separate ways. The first is “are”; this is the titular declaration itself, whereby the document states that the colonies “are […] Free.” The second conjugation is “ought to be,” which is a rhetorical appeal to ethos, to the ethical sensibilities of the readers. Along with the claim that the colonies are free and independent, there is the claim that it is morally correct that they are so.

"rectitude..."   (Text of the Declaration)

The noun “rectitude” means, on a literal level, “straightness” and, more figuratively, “ethical correctness.” In this document, the word is used as part of an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” This statement is a clear example of what Aristotle called an appeal to ethos, to the audience’s ethical sensibilities. While the audience may not agree with the legitimacy of the “Supreme Judge of the World,” the founders are undoubtedly expressing an earnest desire to follow the most ethical course of action, and that desire lends their cause credibility.

"Enemies in War, in Peace Friends...."   (Text of the Declaration)

The phrase “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends” is both an elegant expression and a subtle reiteration of the guiding logic of the Declaration of Independence. The logic dictates that the relationship between the United States and Britain is determined by reason and circumstance, not whim or emotion. If war is justified, the relationship is one of enmity. If peace rules the day, then friendship follows. This rationale is an example of what Aristotle called logos, a rhetorical appeal to reason.

"consanguinity..."   (Text of the Declaration)

The noun “consanguinity” refers to the condition of sharing a blood relationship, usually through common ancestry. It derives from the Latin con, meaning “with,” and sanguis, meaning “blood.” In this context, Jefferson uses the word to evoke the shared origins of the American colonies and Britain and, further, to indict the British government for ignoring such a bond.

"we have conjured them..."   (Text of the Declaration)

To “conjure with” someone is to call upon someone to follow an oath or promise in the name of a higher authority. Here, Jefferson claims that the colonies “have conjured with” the British to “disavow” their infractions and invasions “by the ties of [their] common kindred.” Such a conjuring represents an appeal of ethos in that it makes a case for the forthrightness of the American colonies in their actions leading up to the declaration.

"magnanimity..."   (Text of the Declaration)

The noun “magnanimity” literally means “greatness of soul” and derives from the Latin combination of magnus (“great”) and animus (“soul”). The word originates with the Greek notion of “megalopsychia,” which the philosopher Aristotle claimed to be the highest and most all-encompassing virtue. Jefferson uses the word as an appeal of pathos, for it assumes that the Kingdom of Great Britain is fundamentally good and reasonable.

"We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here...."   (Text of the Declaration)

This sentence refers to the origins of American colonists and settlers; those origins are largely British. From as early as 1607, with the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, by English emigrants, North America had been most effectively colonized by the British. Thus, as revolution reared its head in the 1770s, the founders appealed to Britain’s sense of shared roots and blood bonds, what Jefferson refers to later as “consanguinity.” This is an example of an appeal to pathos, to the emotions of the British imperial forces.

"Redress..."   (Text of the Declaration)

The noun “redress” refers to compensation for a wrong committed. Jefferson suggests that the American colonies have sought reparations for the losses caused by the harmful actions of Britain, but without success. This statement is an example of an appeal to logos, or logic: because—among other reasons—the colonies have petitioned for redress without results, they therefore must officially separate from Britain.

"He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people...."   (Text of the Declaration)

By the time of the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the American Revolutionary War was well underway. The violent acts perpetrated by the British, which Jefferson lists here, were acts of war. Jefferson presents these acts as incursions and invasions because the war was fought almost exclusively on American, rather than British, soil. Therefore the war endangered the lives and property of civilians on the American side alone. This climate of invasion spurred Jefferson to write of the British attacks in such colorful, literary language. Piratical verbs such as “plundered,” “ravaged,” “burnt,” and “destroyed” paint a barbarous portrait of the British army, thereby underscoring the Americans’ desire to revolt.

"after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People..."   (Text of the Declaration)

This grievance is closely related to the previous one, which criticized King George III’s dissolving of American legislative assemblies. This grievance further criticizes the king for not establishing new legislative bodies in their absence. The passage goes on to claim for the American people the right to form their own “Legislative Powers.” The founders viewed the populace as the source of all governance. By that logic, if a house of representatives disbands, their governing power is replaced from within by the people. To wait for a king to replace such governing bodies would both betray the principles of the budding American nation and leave the state “exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.” At a time when there were clear “dangers of invasion,” it was critical to maintain internal stability. With its emphasis on first principles, this passage is an excellent example of the rhetoric of logos, the appeal to logic.

"that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed..."   (Text of the Declaration)

In 1849, some 73 years later, Henry David Thoreau made a similar observation in his essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau remarks that “those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters.” The idea is that most people are inert in the face of corrupt governments and that such inertia further supports those governments.

"that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed..."   (Text of the Declaration)

Here Jefferson makes an observation about the nature of human politics: people are more likely to suffer under an unreasonable government as long as the “evils are sufferable” than they are to do something about it. In this context, the suggestion is that the evils forced upon the American colonies by Britain are no longer sufferable, and therefore revolution is necessary. This careful, logical progression is an example of Aristotle’s logos, an appeal to the audience’s sense of reason.

"swarms of Officers..."   (Text of the Declaration)

Jefferson’s inclusion of the locust metaphor—“swarms of Officers [...] eat out their substance”—stands out in the otherwise straightforward declaration. This metaphor strongly expresses the abuses and frustrations the colonies have endured under the king, and by casting it in a more accessible metaphor, Jefferson appeals to his audience’s emotions, stirring their sense of injustice.

"Prudence..."   (Text of the Declaration)

The noun “prudence” refers to the quality of having good sense in financial or practical affairs. Exercising prudence, therefore, means to show caution and discretion. Jefferson uses this word here to emphasize that common sense dictates that a long-established government should not be changed for simple, “transient causes.” He then proceeds to state the conditions under which a government should be changed. This use of diction helps Jefferson and the Continental Congress to not only make their declaration appeal to reason, but also make their cause for independence credible.

"their Creator..."   (Text of the Declaration)

While at first glance the pronoun “their” matches the plural noun “men,” Jefferson makes a subtle, calculated rhetorical move here. He does not use “we” or “us”; he evokes an abstract, plural entity to emphasize his point that everyone has these rights endowed by whichever “Creator” or belief system they choose. Since “Creator” has a wide variety of meanings and applications, this choice also provides a more broadly encompassing tone and allows Jefferson to appeal to a wide range of readers.

"usurpations..."   (Text of the Declaration)

The noun “usurpations” refers to the act of illegally or wrongfully seizing or occupying anything that belongs to another person or people. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius murders his brother, the king, in order to usurp the throne, or become king himself. Jefferson and the Continental Congress use this word to refer to the many unjust acts that King George III has committed against the colonies, and the choice of this word adds gravity to the list of wrongs that follow.

"To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world...."   (Text of the Declaration)

This sentence is crucial for two reasons. First, it declares the methods by which the Continental Congress will prove the validity of the American revolt. That method is the submittal of “Facts.” True to the Enlightenment ideals which guided the deeds of the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence represents an argument based on evidence and reason. This is the essence of the rhetorical appeal Aristotle called logos—logic is the method. Second, this sentence gestures to the audience of the declaration: neither the British Empire nor King George III himself, but rather “a Candid world”—“candid,” in this case, meaning impartial and unbiased. The founding fathers knew that, as a colony wresting their independence from imperial control, their actions were historically unprecedented. They knew the world would be watching, and they were right. The American Revolution created a new paradigm for nations breaking free from monarchy and establishing democratic self-governance.

"it is their duty, to throw off such Government..."   (Text of the Declaration)

In the history of political theory, there has long existed a dichotomy between rights and duties, two related but opposing necessities of free citizens. Governments give rights to citizens; citizens perform duties in order to properly engage in society. Rights are more a matter of legislation; duties more a matter of principle. Both are critical to the maintenance of a free, democratic state. Mahatma Gandhi once criticized “the farce of everybody wanting and insisting on his rights, nobody thinking of his duty.” The founding documents of the United States describe at length the rights of its citizens. This passage is therefore notable because it states that citizens have both the right and the duty to “throw off” despotic governments. While the governments of free states cannot delineate the duties of its citizens—at the risk of resembling a despot—here Jefferson encourages Americans to take up their duty as individuals to fight for freedom.

"they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation...."   (Text of the Declaration)

At the end of the short introductory paragraph, Jefferson addresses the purpose of the document: to announce the reasons why the colonies are declaring independence. In Western rhetorical traditions, the main point is established at the start for the audience. This allows the author to then add evidence, such as the grievances Jefferson lists below, and additional rhetoric, such as the following paragraph, that support the main point of the text. Jefferson structures the declaration in a logical fashion, which adds power to his rhetoric and, in turn, the cause of the declaration.

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