Rhetorical Devices In The Declaration Of Independence

What rhetorical devices (words, phrases, etc.) does Jefferson use in the Declaration of Independence?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jefferson's drafting of the Declaration of Independence follows Aristotle's theory of argument (in his Rhetoric), specifically, invention (or Inventio), by using three types of what Aristotle called artificial proof, that is, proof which is based on something other than scientific analysis, observable phenomena, document.  Instead, based on three types of argument--ethos, pathos, logos--Jefferson proves his case that the American colonies have no choice but the separate from Great Britain.

The principle of ethos is to prove to the audience/reader that the writer is a reasonable person and is therefore credible.  Jefferson does this very skilfully in the first line of the Declaration when he announces to the world that the Declaration is written out of respect for those who must judge the rightness or wrongness of the colonies' decision to break with Great Britain:

a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Jefferson creates a tone of reasonableness and respect even before he begins to enumerate the reasons for the separation.  This tone establishes his credibility (his ethos), which is a critical part of his ability to argue the colonies' case.

Establishing pathos requires that Jefferson elicit feelings or emotions from audience, which he accomplishes in the second paragraph of the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This line is, of course, arguably the most important sentence in the Declaration, but from a rhetorical standpoint, it has the effect of bringing out the audience's emotions connected to its collective belief that all men are entitled to life, liberty and happiness.  Although some of Jefferson's audience may not believe that all men are created equal--such a belief depends on one's definition of what constitutes a man--but the belief that all men have the inherent right to life, liberty and happiness would evoke an emotional response in his audience.

Logos, the third element of proof in Aristotle's scheme, is based on logic and reason.  The most important section of the Declaration is a long list of the violations of King George and Parliament of the American colonies' rights, and it begins with the phrase, "To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."  What follows is a litany of royal and parliamentary crimes against the American colonies that establish the reasons, the logos, that justify the break with Great Britain:

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

Jefferson singles out King George in his list of wrongs because George III is the personification of Great Britain, and this technique is itself rhetorically successful because among his audience are people who are not supporters of the king.  But the purpose of the list of wrongs is to prove his case against Britain with facts, which, if true, are not disputable.  Jefferson's appeal to logos is successful  because his arguments are based on facts, not on opinions or feelings, and these accumulating factual arguments lead to only one conclusion--that the separation from Great Britain is a reasonable action for reasonable people.

Jefferson's use of appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos make the Declaration an effective ethical, emotional, and logical statement to the world of America's belief that separation from Great Britain is a reasonable response to an overwhelming set of abuses.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the rhetorical techniques that Jefferson uses in the Declaration of Independence is repetition. This is used to great effect in the body of the document, as he is listing the grievances that the colonists hold against the King. After starting the declaration with a logical account of the colonists’ need to establish independence, Jefferson then delineates all of the reasons that King George has given them to revolt. He gives 27different transgressions that King George has committed, all beginning with the words “He has” or “For.” The first one, for example, is

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

The effect of repetition in this section of the document is to emphasize how unfairly the British have treated the colonies. Putting all the grievances together in this fashion, with the repeated introductory word(s) gives the impression that the list just goes “on and on.”