Rhetoric in Declaration of Independence & Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

Categories: Henry David Thoreau

Rhetoric breathes within all persuasive artifacts, shaping and directing argument into discussion, especially within articles and documents. Authors commonly share identical rhetoric principles; however, the intent and persuasive charges remains in constant fluctuation, inspiring an audience towards drastically contrasting goals. This assertion remains prevalent when observing Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government, both political and societal charges. The Declaration of Independence, drafted a year into the Revolutionary War, formalized the American government as a free entity, outside of the grip of British authority and tyranny, declaring social and political freedoms (Jefferson 151).

Resistance to Civil Government follows-up eighty-three years later, crying for revision to the government, not overthrowing, and calling upon the individual in harnessing the powers of freedom in pursuing wholesome reformation and protection from unjust political legislation (Thoreau 484). While each document challenges political and social norms, a profound assertion remains: Both articles denounce governmental regime wrongdoing, each employing identical rhetorical elements, unifying the rhetorical triangle of pathos, ethos, and logos in identifying an unique audience, redefining who constitutes "American”.

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Pathos emotionally infiltrates these articles through storytelling and inspiring patriotism, exciting the audience and successfully redefining the notion of "American". Aligning the emotional interest of all thirteen colonies, Jefferson begins the Declaration of Independence as a preface for America's story of political freedom. The first sentence narrates this tale, that, "When, in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve their political bands...,” (Jefferson 152) opening the entirety of the document as the narrative for the Thirteen Colonies separation.

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Additionally, Jefferson uses this written documentation in showcasing patriotism, a national surge which highlights that, “Not until the British began stomping over the countryside did Americans' patriotism rouse them to join the cause of independence,” (Heinrichs 90) once again capturing pathos, inspiring the audience.

The Declaration of Independence remains a narrative that isolates the American audience exclusively to white, upper-class, aristocratic men of this newly foundational America, still highly flirtatious with European philosophies and evolving into a moniker of American. Fast forward to Thoreau and the pathos driven concepts of storytelling and patriotism fluidly exist within Resistance to Civil Government. In directing the narrative, Thoreau accounts for his night in jail for civil discourse and disobedience, denying payment of the poll-tax for six years and denoting the failing State's ability in identifying friends and foes (Thoreau 489). This emotionally stirring account provides preface when perceiving the civil government, creating anger, empathy, and heartache for the declining morality of government institution.

Furthermore, patriotism too moves the emotional barometer, as Thoreau denotes, "Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire,” (Thoreau 491) directly referencing the audiences’ raw and awesome power in political workings, empowering and emotionally charging his audience with these visions of influence.

Unlike Jefferson's faux-unification of the American populous, disregarding all women or colored races for the sake and sanity of proper governmental establishment, Thoreau's call to action beckons the dissenting opinions of white men, but on an individual level, interestingly still ignoring women and outstanding races; however, the time between these documents reveals the relapse between governmental policy, a déjà vu highlighting the problems with Britain's tyranny and now America's shortcomings. Both authors employ identical rhetoric elements of pathos, garnering the passion of emotion in persuading the audience, yet the message falls on drastically different ears, motivating each group towards a unique goal, redefining the interpretation of "American”.

The second angle of the rhetoric triangle, ethos, verifies and establishes credibility for the author, applying an aura of prestige to the persuasion, ultimately shaping the messages towards resisting tradition and redefining the term "American”. In Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, each of the Founding Fathers pledge their lives in pronouncing the independence of America, denoting a literal symbolic sacrifice of life, establishing immense trust between themselves and the audience, solidifying credibility through actively staking a claim for the future, regardless of their livelihood (154).

Additionally, The Declaration of Independence demonstrates Heinrich's tool of the reluctant conclusion (80), by providing overwhelming evidence through justifying the necessity of independence by drawing upon the philosophies of God-given rights and grievances against the British, further reemphasizing Jefferson's credibility and empowering his presence as a persuader (151). Together, the examples reveal overwhelmingly Jefferson's credentials and awesome superstar status, bathing in credibility, thereby leading towards challenging the original notion of the "American” as a British colonists and rather a new generation of selfless and sacrificial men, challenging the grievances of a wrongful and tyrannical government, pursuing the bellows of freedom in any fashion.

Gleaming from Jefferson's pursuit of ethos, Thoreau too channels personal sacrifice and reluctant conclusion in establishing ethos, engrossing the audience's perception of the persuasion. Thoreau begins building credibility through personally sacrificing his own entity, spending time within prison walls, expressing his beliefs through activism and peaceful protest, living out the literary claims and cries throughout Resistance to Civil Government (489). Furthermore, throughout the entirety of the dialogue, Thoreau drops concluding hints, crafting the reluctant conclusion, always reminding the reader that, “... The individual [is] the higher and independent power, from which all [the State's] power and authority are derived...," constantly reminding the audience of their position and by classifying himself as apart of this demographic, Thoreau continues gathering credibility, supplementing the persuasion's influential message and cementing trust (491).

Whereas Jefferson uses his radiating ethos in binding the Thirteen Colonies towards trusting and freely empowering the white male in articulating nationally policy, Thoreau's ethos allows for the call of a power play, where the individual, still white and male, civilly challenges governmental law, individually gathering this demographic towards unification in changing judicial law; however, each author still ignores the plight of women or the racially diverse, still sharing in extreme ignorance. Jefferson and Thoreau effectively share pathos devices, illuminating and revering themselves through effective credibility, pronouncing drastically diverse messages towards separate audiences still calling for action, but revealing the quickly fracturing and shifting perception of “American”. Completing the rhetorical triangle, logos enables for the presentation of logic and reason that constitutes the persuasive arguments, ultimately cementing concepts of validity and soundness, through layout, in reshaping previous notions of the term “American”.

The layout for the Declaration of Independence remains a logical feat, first calling the need for political separateness, as Jefferson declares, “The history of the present King of Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations...,” (152) then immediately justifies this assertion with injustices, beginning with, "He has refused his Assent to Laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” and dissenting for the next few dozen lines, thereby, reaffirming the claim through proof and validating enough reason for ending political slavery with the English overlord (152).

Additionally, the logic behind the reasoning maintains validity and soundness, correctly following the logic of causality, in which an initial premise receives factual backing and reaffirms the premise. In crafting such a logical document, Jefferson not only provides ample reasoning for such a dramatic break-up, but now adds a new sensibility to the American perception, one that re-labels these white men as aristocrats, as intellectuals, as philosophers, and as students of law, men above the cut.

Resistance to Civil Government also equips an identical layout tactic in supplementing logical necessity backing the persuasive argument. Thoreau remarks early in the text that, “The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it,” (485) signifying an initial claim in which he reveals the perversion of the government, ignoring the action of individuals, motioning legislation before public dissension. In affirming this pronouncement, Thoreau plainly unloads that, "A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by it's whole weight,” depicting the current faltering of the State in the hotbed issues of slavery, in which the government permits the disfranchisement of humanity for slaves, widely ignoring the pleas and motioning of the Abolitionist minority (488).

Indistinguishable with Jefferson, the logic and reasoning passes the checks of validity and soundness, the logic of causality, with an initial claim receiving confirmation from fact, ultimately proving an assertion true. This weighty logical prowess hankers towards the individual man, the minority in political opposition, in structuring an argument against this unjust legislature, moving the perception of “America” from a class of white men to the individual white male. Unlike the previous rhetorical devices, Thoreau actually speaks and gleams from Jefferson's vernacular and perspective, seeking out the disdain of the current political setting employing logos; however, Thoreau channels the message on a personal level, breaking Jefferson's assumption of the audience, calling for individuals in binding a togetherness, demonstrating the dismantling of previous notions, revealing the shifting perception of what determines an “American”.

Even with this uncanny similarity, both Jefferson and Thoreau still ignore and forget about women or other races, an oversight throughout the entire tenure of these essays. Logos provides the framework for both Jefferson and Thoreau in assessing their claims, cementing the pattern of proof and ultimately depicting the altering impression of “American”.

Jefferson and Thoreau use their articles as platforms for persuasive argument, with nearly one hundred years apart and still conjuring identical rhetorical elements, merging pathos, ethos, and logos together in crafting the message, reaching unique audiences, yet representing new perceptions of “American”. Regardless of the age, rhetoric remains an universal and ubiquitous tool, even with differing audiences, evidence through Jefferson's summoning of the elite within society, only “unifying” the nation in name, whereas Thoreau cries to the masses, hopeful of inspiring individuals towards a true unification of sorts, both fevering for radical political reformation.

Even with parallel political visions of grandeur and rhetorical tools, the treatment and perception of the "American” audience radically shifts from notions of "We" to “I”, conveying the manifestation of the American ideal of individualism and fracturing of collective group mentality. This fascination and uplifting of the individual exists as a fabric within the American identity, a radical change of perception and even remains a cultural phenomenon today. Rhetoric remains an immensely influential tool, shifting entire perceptions of culture and society, leading towards resolution in a new belief, attitude, value or ultimately behavior, ultimatums of successful rhetoric and persuasion.

Works Cited

  1. Heinrichs, Jay. "Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion.” New York: Three Rivers, 2007. Print.
  2. Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence." American Political Thought. 1st Ed. Issac Kramnick and Theodore Lowi. New York: Norton & Company, 2009. 151 - 154. Print
  3. Thoreau, Henry. "Resistance to Civil Government." American Political Thought. 1st Ed. Issac Kramnick and Theodore Lowi. New York: Norton & Company, 2009. 484- 491. Print
Updated: May 03, 2023
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Rhetoric in Declaration of Independence & Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. (2021, Sep 15). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/rhetorical-elements-and-principles-in-declaration-of-independence-and-thoreau-s-resistance-to-civil-government-essay

Rhetoric in Declaration of Independence & Thoreau's Civil Disobedience essay
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