In his latest column, Rich does a fine job of explaining Thomas Jefferson’s great achievement, as both a writer and a thinker, in composing the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Whether it’s your first time through the Declaration or your fiftieth, you can’t read those words without hearing a John Philip Sousa march in the background. Yet I have to confess that to me, the boring part of the Declaration — the justification and bill of particulars, which takes up about three-quarters of the text (from “Prudence, indeed” through the next-to-last paragraph) — is actually the most inspiring.
The sentences that Rich discusses are certainly packed with meaning, and the beliefs they express were much more daring in 1776 than they sound today. And Jefferson’s force and eloquence are impaired only slightly by the fact that he and the other signers didn’t really mean it — not just because of slavery, which was legal in all 13 states at the time of the Declaration, but the fact that even free blacks couldn’t vote in most places, nor could people who didn’t own property, and of course the word “men” was taken literally . . .
Still, the Declaration’s stirring words on liberty and the consent of the governed have all too often been borrowed and adapted by less noble revolutionaries and used to justify their excesses. Anyone can say, “We demand our rights, and we demand them now,” but as conservatives, we should be generally skeptical about revolutions (including America’s, which very nearly collapsed on several occasions). When you have a gripe, the American way is to work within the system to fix it, accepting the possibility that reform may take a long time, instead of starting a war that could easily destroy the nation you profess to be saving. Only when your efforts at reconciliation and improvement fail irrevocably is it time for the ultimate step.
That’s where the Declaration’s true eloquence lies: These are our rights, says Jefferson; and these (a much longer list) are all the ways they have been violated, along with the steps we’ve taken to try to work things out peacefully. By the end, the cumulative case for revolution is irresistible, and the tone of regret at least equals that of defiance, making the climax (“We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends”) entirely believable.
To be sure, many revolutionary movements, past and present, have opposed rulers who were much more harsh and repressive than George III. In those cases, such politeness would have been grotesque. Still, in the admittely rare case where the power being rebelled against is basically rational and fair-minded (if perhaps somewhat pig-headed), any rebel who reads the entire Declaration of Independence, instead of just the first couple of paragraphs, should be inspired to take one last shot at finding a peaceful solution, or at least make absolutely sure that his grievances add up to a case for war.
Perhaps you shouldn’t listen to me; after all, I don’t think the Gettysburg Address was all that great either. But to me, the start of the Declaration is an excellent bit of speechwriting, while the entire Declaration, in all its tiresome specificity, is a document for the ages.