What comparison can be made between "The Declaration of Independence" and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"? How do the authors use similar writing styles to...
What comparison can be made between "The Declaration of Independence" and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"?
How do the authors use similar writing styles to persuade their audience of the argument they are trying to make? What are some contradictions?
Each document was written in the midst of a freedom struggle. Both the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement resulted from a group of people laying claim to rights that they saw as theirs by virtue of being human. In the Declaration of Independence, the colonists asserted that "all men are created equal," that they were endowed "...with certain unalienable rights," and that the purpose of government was to uphold these rights. The fact that the British government was abusive of these rights was, the Americans argued, justification for revolution and separation. King uses a somewhat similar formulation to argue for the power of civil disobedience. Quoting St. Augustine, he says "an unjust law is no law at all." By this, he means that laws which "degrade human personality" are unjust and are to be resisted. So government, by failing to uphold the "natural law" cited by both Jefferson in the Declaration and King in his letter, loses its legitimacy to govern by traducing the rights of the people. Where the Declaration uses this as a justification for separation, King argues that nonviolent protest and civil disobedience can force change in the law, and points out that the American Revolutionaries themselves exercised civil disobedience at the Boston Tea Party. So each document provides a justification for revolutionary actions.
Interesting questions, one of the better ones I've seen recently. The Declaration of Independence was mainly a charging document, starting clearly and innocently enough with declaring "the causes which impel them to the separation", but then it goes on to blast the King and the Empire with a long list of charges of tyranny and oppression.
Martin Luther King Jr. also starts calmly enough as he explains why he has become involved with the Birmingham movement for civil rights, then his argument gains force and momentum as he begins to quote scripture and to blast the white preachers who have written him by arguing "justice too long delayed is justice denied" and "privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily".
Both are compelling, eloquent and powerful arguments against the injustices of their time. In terms of contradictions, Jefferson was arguing for freedom essentially for white males from the King, while he owned slaves and protected the social status quo in the colonies. King, on the other hand argues equality for all.
In my mind, both political documents are written "under siege." By this, I mean that both thinkers believe that the moment in which they are writing represents a critical moment in which they must use the powers of written persuasion to mobilize others in their causes. Both writers feel that they are on the morally righteous side of the debate and employ such language that makes their subjective causes more universal, more applicable to others. Both documents make appeal to the rights of all human beings in attempting to distill the debate as one primarily rights based. In both, the reader sees a moment where action is needed and to ignore it is to, in the words of Dr. King, to neglect "the fierce urgency of now."
To me, the major comparison between these two important pieces of American history is that they are both fulfilling something of the same purpose. That is, they are both explaining the reasoning behind acts of rebellion.
Both King and Jefferson lay out reasons for their rebellion. They give philsophical reasons, but they also spell out specific grievances that they have with the way things are in their societies. Jefferson was explaining why it was time to part with England. In the case of King, he is explaining to his audience why black people cannot keep going slowly and waiting for whites to give them rights.