Why are the events not in chronological order in the Declaration of Independence?
In order to arrive at an answer to this question, one must have an understanding of a few basic facts concerning the Declaration of Independence as well as an understanding of American society and economics at the time it was written and disseminated.
Let’s first look at the Declaration of Independence to answer a few questions—why was it written, what was its purpose, how was it organized, and for what kind of audience was it written. Once the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain it chose a committee to write the declaration and the committee chose Thomas Jefferson to draft the document. Jefferson was tasked with explaining to the civilized world what the fledgling nation was about to do. This was no easy task because he had to explain something that had never been done before to all the people living in the colonies at that time and the other skeptical European nations. His ideas were not new but extremely liberal for that day and age. Taking many of the ideas of John Locke, he composed a beautiful document that would put forth radical ideas and would lead to the creation of a totally new form of government.
There are essentially four parts to the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson writes in the beginning the purpose of government and basically the rationale for declaring independence. From there he moves to listing complaints and/or charges against the King of England, then to listing actions taken by the American colonies to attempt to address these grievances. The last part of the Declaration of Independence is the actual declaring of independence. It is a logically organized document, extremely well laid out, and makes clear to everyone why the united colonies were taking this course.
Jefferson did not write the list of complaints against the king in any chronological order but instead chose to list them from least to most serious because he was keenly aware of his target audience and how it was to be delivered. Of course it was written for Great Britain and the other European powers, but more importantly it was written to an American population that was divided over support and opposition to independence. At that time most American settlers were engaged in agriculture, shipbuilding/trade, or fur trapping. Most of that trade was between the colonies and Great Britain, creating very strong economic and social ties between the colonies and the mother country; as a result there were many living in the North American colonies that remained loyal to mother England. There were also many settlers who still had not made up their mind and the Declaration of Independence could persuade those to support independence.
A few basic facts about colonial society and economics in 1776 will illustrate how and why the charges against the King were listed in increasingly more serious tones. Public education was in its infancy and only in New England; consequently literacy rates were extremely high. Most settlers did not attend school, especially in the south; consequently, most could not read or write. Jefferson understood this so he deliberately wrote this document knowing that it would have been read to many, whether in church from pulpits or by town criers on the steps of town and county courthouses. A powerful patriotic preacher in the pulpit reading these complaints against the King would become increasingly agitated and louder, leading to a crescendo of severe crimes against the Americans. Those listening would also become angrier and angrier at what the British king and parliament had done. Another illustration of this technique can be seen by looking at the vocabulary used in the first charges listed and comparing it to words used at the end. There is a definite change in the tone. For example as Jefferson began listing complaints he used milder words like: “refused”, “forbidden”, “uncomfortable”, “dissolved”. Then as the litany of charges comes to an end the negative words become much more serious: “plundered”, “ravaged”, “destroyed...lives”, “death”, “desolation”, “tyranny”, “barbarous”, “merciless”, “executioners”.
In conclusion, Jefferson recognized the varied purposes of a declaration of independence. One of those was to enlist greater support for revolution. Understanding the social and economic factors that played an important part of life in 1776, he drafted the Declaration of Independence in such a way as to fulfill that need.