The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson

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How does Jefferson prove his point in the Declaration of Independence?

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In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson substantiates his argument by providing numerous examples of British tyranny, particularly pointing at King George III. He accuses the King of obstructing necessary laws, interfering with democratic processes, and misusing power for his benefit. Furthermore, Jefferson sets a philosophical framework, stating the basic human rights and referencing the social contract theory. He then demonstrates how King George violated these rights and principles, establishing a compelling case for independence.

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Jefferson meant in writing The Declaration of Independence to justify the war the colonists were waging to free themselves from British rule. His chief audience included fellow colonists who, whatever their grievances against the British, were uncertain about breaking away from Britain entirely.

Jefferson, therefore, tried to convince his fellow colonists and if possible, the British, of the merit of the revolutionary cause, primarily by piling up multiple examples of British acts of tyranny. This method of persuasion (or rhetorical strategy) is called illustration or exemplification. Using this strategy, an argument becomes convincing if a person can provide enough specific and appropriate examples to back up his or her contention.

Jefferson provides the following illustrations of British tyranny, aiming his ire at King George III, a monarch he accuses, among other things, of the following:

George III has refused to agree to laws that were necessary for the good of the colonists. He has blocked the passage of other necessary laws, trying to trade their passage for the colonists' agreeing to give up representative government. He has made it difficult for legislative bodies to assemble, imprisoned individuals unfairly, interfered with democratic processes, placed a standing army on the continent, and waged war on the colonists. All in all, these accusations paint a portrait of king misusing and abusing democratic institutions to achieve his own ends and undermining legitimate voices in the governing process.

Whether or not this added up to the "absolute Despotism" Jefferson asserted, the cumulative effect of all these examples of George III's malevolence makes a persuasive argument.

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Jefferson uses the Declaration of Independence as an opportunity to state his claim that King George, the monarch of Great Britain, is tyrannical and is taking advantage of the colonists for his gain, not for their own benefit. He is attempting first and foremost to make a convincing argument to the people of America, because many still were either uneducated on the subject or believed that George may be acting in their best interests. Additionally, Jefferson was using the document as a way to explain to the British people and other nations that they had due cause for declaring their independence.

His first step in this document is to provide a philosophical framework that George is violating. He states the basic human rights that everyone deserves—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and goes into details about John Locke's social contract theory, as well as other sociological viewpoints and arguments. This presents a framework for his case. Beyond that, however, Jefferson demonstrates how King George violated their basic rights and went against the framework of a responsible government. Jefferson outlines 27 grievances by the monarch and Parliament to establish a factual basis for what misdeeds had been committed against the Colonists.

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Jefferson's "point" in the Declaration of Independence is that the British, through their actions, have broken the social contract that legitimizes government. Therefore, the colonists are justified in declaring their independence and taking their place alongside other nations. In order to defend this argument, he proceeds through a long list of grievances. These are notable because they are directed at King George III rather than Parliament. Some of the most damning charges include the following:

  • The king had refused to approve laws passed by colonial legislatures.
  • The king dissolved colonial assemblies.
  • The king kept standing armies in the colonies, a violation of an age-old English tradition.
  • The king approved, and attempted to enforce, taxation without representation.

In addition to these charges, Jefferson leveled what would have been read as the final straw for the colonists: The king had encouraged both Native Americans and enslaved African Americans to rise up in revolt against the Revolutionaries. These charges were intended to demonstrate to a "candid world" that the colonies were justified in severing their political ties with Great Britain.

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Thomas Jefferson's main point in the Declaration of Independence is that King George is a tyrant and that is reason enough for the colonies to declare their independence from him. Jefferson sets about proving this argument in two ways. He begins the document with a philosophical argument that citizens have the right to a government that respects and protects their natural freedoms and liberties. He borrows a lot of this from the enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, most notably John Locke. These notions of freedom and self-determination would have been familiar in the intellectual circles of the time. Jefferson contends that if a government will not fulfill its end of this bargain, then the people have a duty to replace it with one that will.

It would not be enough to simply rely on philosophical arguments. Jefferson also provides cases in point as to the tyrannical actions of the English king. He lists twenty-seven grievances against the king that range from imposing taxes without the consent of the people to imprisoning them without the benefit of a proper trial.

Taken all together, Thomas Jefferson lays out a compelling justification of why the 13 colonies were declaring independence from Great Britain and striving to establish a new nation.

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Jefferson makes great use of both deductive and inductive reasoning in laying out his argument for independence from Britain.

Deductive arguments are "top-down" in that they begin with the general and move to the specific. Inductive arguments are "bottom-up" and begin with specific observations and move to broader ideas.

Jefferson's general claim (premise) is that King George is a tyrant. Jefferson recites a litany of twenty-seven specific abuses of which the king is guilty. Taken together, these twenty-seven abuses support his claim of the king's tyranny and offer inductive support for his claim.

Other claims that Jefferson makes are more based on philosophical values and are thus less provable, such as his claim of the colonies' right to independence and self-rule. Moreover, Jefferson asserts the claim that all bonds between the colonies and Britain should be dissolved.

Finally, Jefferson claims that when the colonies are free from Britain they, as the independent United States, would be able to act as all independent nations do, another point of deductive logic.

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