Declaration of Independence — history for our times

Today we celebrate the signing of one of the foundational documents of the United States. Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence holds no force of law. In fact, our founding fathers broke the law by signing it. They understood exactly what that meant, but they refused to be governed by an unjust authority.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence may not carry the force of law in our country—we have the Constitution for that. But it surely serves as a kind of moral law. It sets forth the principles by which Americans expected to be governed. It rejects blind allegiance to an authoritarian figure, King George III:

He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Sorry to repeat the racist stereotyping of Native Americans. But I thought it was interesting that our founders dealt with a ruler who was attempting to spark “domestic insurrection” and to use a group of what we might call “outside agitators” to stir up trouble with law-abiding citizens.

Can’t imagine the leader of a country doing that kind of thing these days, can you?

Independence & Revision

I found an interesting website comparing Thomas Jefferson’s “Rough Draught” of the Declaration of Independence with the draft that was sent to the Continental Congress and the draft the Congress signed on July 4th 1776.

Let’s look at a couple of passages and how they changed:

The History of his present Majesty, is a History of unremitting Injuries and Usurpations, among which no one Fact stands Single or Solitary to contradict the uniform Tenor of the rest, all of which have in direct object, the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be Submitted to a candid World, for the Truth of which We pledge a Faith, as yet unsullied by falsehood.

That’s 72 words. It lost two in the next version:

The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest; but 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, for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.

Still really long and redundant. Here’s a passage from the final, signed version

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.

It’s shrunk by a third: 42 words. We could certainly tighten it up further today, but for the 18th century this counts as pithy.

“A Tyrant” is unfit to rule this country

Removing extra words makes your points stand out much more strongly. And what’s your aim—to impress people with your flowery writing or to make change  happen? This  passage comes from what the Continental Congress might call its “discussion draft”:

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free. Future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man adventured within the short compass of twelve years only, to build a foundation, so broad and undisguised for tyranny over a people fostered and fixed in principles of freedom.

The final shrinks these 95 words by nearly half:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries.

A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

The final version carves out the most important points:

We asked you to help us; you only hurt us more. That’s the kind of stuff a bully does, a tyrant. You’re not fit to rule free people.

History. It can repeat itself, you know.


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