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Vocabulary in The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America

Vocabulary Examples in The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America:

Text of the Declaration

16

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

In a general sense, the verb “dissolve” refers to a release or removal of a bond connecting one thing to another. In choosing this term, Jefferson is stating that the political ties that connect the colonies to Great Britain need to be removed since they are no longer repairable. This is the first step, declaring independence, in separating the two nations and freeing the colonies from Britain’s rule.

"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.

"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.

"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.

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

The noun “perfidy” means treacherousness, a characteristic Jefferson assigns to King George III for his aggressive actions towards the American colonies.

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

The noun “despotism” refers to a political system controlled by a despot, or absolute authority, and has strong, negative connotations. The founders use such language to characterize the rule of King George III, and American activists and politicians have used the word to describe institutions and government influences that have gone, or potentially could go, too far. For example, in his essay “Reconstruction,” Frederick Douglass uses “despotic” to clarify his preference for a federal government that is strong but not severe. He states his opposition to governments that abuse their power and oppress their people.

"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.

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

The adjective “unalienable” stipulates that something cannot be moved or transferred (“alienated”) from its current ownership or relationship. By saying “unalienable Rights,” Jefferson is supporting the belief that the rights he subsequently lists are incapable of not being applied to everyone. They are intrinsic, a birthright of humanity.

"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.

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

The noun “tyrant” refers to a government ruler who has absolute authority over a people. The United Colonies specifically name King George III a tyrant and have listed many grievances illustrating why. The word has negative connotations, as tyrants typically abuse their power to the detriment of their people. The inclusion of this specific word, instead of “despot” or “dictator,” likely reveals the influence of political philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, two critics of tyranny, on the founders.

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

Today, the term “Congress” most commonly refers to the legislative branch of the United States federal government. The Declaration of Independence uses another definition: a coming together of persons for a meeting; the assembling of a group. The “Congress” referred to in the declaration was the Continental Congress, who met to sign the document. The Continental Congress was the first “Congress”—referring to a representative, governing body—in the United States’ history.

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

A “tyranny” is a government controlled by an absolute ruler or monarch. Under a tyranny, all the workings of a state—economic, social, political—are subject to change according to the desires of the ruler. More so than related terms such as “monarchy” or “autocracy,” “tyranny” has a particularly negative connotation, suggesting an oppressive, cruel system. The word suits Jefferson’s vision of King George III’s reign.

"deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."   (Text of the Declaration)

This clause represents another influence that political philosopher John Locke had on the founders. In chapter VIII of his Second Treatise of Government, Locke writes that “no one can be put out of this estate [being free, equal, and independent], and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” The noun “consent” is of importance here and forms the foundation of democracy: consent requires voluntary agreement, or permission. This means that no one can rule without the approval of those over whom they rule.

"the Powers of the earth..."   (Text of the Declaration)

The noun “power” has a multitude of meanings, but considering the political context, Jefferson’s meaning becomes clear: by “Powers,” Jefferson means the political entities, kingdoms, and nations around the world. Specifically, Jefferson was likely referring to the European colonial powers. At the time of writing, for a former colony to declare itself independent and deserving of equal status as a nation was practically unheard of.

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