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The Rhetorical Ancestry of the Declaration of Independence Stephen E. Lucas Few acts of rhetorical invention have provoked more enduring public interest than that which produced the Declaration of Independence. It became a matter of controversy early in the nineteenth century, first upon publication of the fraudulent Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1819, and then, four years later, when Timothy Pickering, in a Fourth of July oration at Salem, Massachusetts, quoted John Adams as saying every idea in the Declaration "had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before" and its major arguments had been set forth "in a pamphlet voted and printed by the town of Boston before the first Congress met."1 Ever since, one of America's perennial intellectual pursuits has been to speculate about the sources from which Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Congress derived the ideas and phrases of our national charter. One reason this question continues to be debated is that neither Jefferson nor the other members of the Committee of Five charged by Congress with drafting the Declaration provided any definitive answers. In keeping with Congress's insistence upon secrecy in all its deliberations, there is no contemporaneous account of the committee's work. More than a quarter century afterward, two members of the committee—Adams and Jefferson—provided a few tantalizing glimpses into its proceedings , but often the accuracy of their recollections was clouded by the mists of time and memory. As Pauline Maier has noted, deciphering the origins and reconstructing the writing of the Declaration is "like assembling an immensely complex jigsaw puzzle in which some pieces are 'teases,' serving only to mislead, while others necessary to complete the picture have probably been lost forever. Whenever a new Stephen E. Lucas is Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. He wishes to thank Edwin Black, Lloyd Bitzer, Susan Zaeske, Charles Cohen, John Kaminski, and Richard Lefflerfor their comments and suggestions. He also thanks participants at the National Communication Association, the International Society for the History of Rhetoric, the Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Leiden University's International Conference on Five Centuries of Interaction between the Low Countries and the Americas for their responses to earlier drafts of this essay. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 1, No. 2,1998, pp. 143-184 ISSN 1094-8392 144 Rhetoric & Public Affairs piece of the puzzle does appear, as still happens occasionally, it fills out the picture, adding or changing some details, which can affect interpretations of the document."2 Some of the pieces currently in place highlight the persons and events central to the decision for independence and the drafting and adoption of the Declaration in June and July of 1776. Other pieces clarify the linkages between the Declaration and the ideology of resistance articulated by American leaders during the eleven years of controversy with England before independence. Still others illuminate the connections between the Declaration and the political theory and philosophical tenets of such men as Locke, Sidney, Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, Burlamaqui, and the Scottish common sense thinkers. Yet even after all of these pieces are set in place, the puzzle remains incomplete, for the Declaration was more than an act of revolution, more than a statement of political ideology, more than an assertion of philosophical principle. It was also a rhetorical document designed to persuade a "candid world" that the Americans were justified in seeking to establish themselves as an independent nation. As Jefferson himself explained, when the colonies were forced "to resort to arms for redress" in their struggle with England, "an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments , never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."3 This much, of course, is generally recognized. Jefferson's statement has been quoted so often as to become a staple of scholarship on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 143-184
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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