A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Title: Declaration of Independence Speech By: The Founders Date: July 4, 1776 Location: Independence Hall, Philadelphia Occasion: 13 Colonies Declare Independence
It was meant to be read aloud.
We don’t usually think of the Declaration of Independence as a speech. But it was meant to be read aloud. It was written at a time when being “on the stump” was a literal, not just a figurative exercise. Politicians, itinerant preachers, and those just seeking public attention, would come to a town, stand on an old tree stump near the center of it, and speak as, hopefully, a crowd gathered.
When the Continental Congress had finished editing Jefferson’s draft, it was sent immediately to printer John Dunlap, who produced between 150 and 200 copies, known as the "Dunlap broadsides" for distribution up and down the coast.
The first official public reading was by John Nixon in the yard of Independence Hall on July 8. A copy was sent to General George Washington, who had the Declaration read to his troops in New York City on July 9, with the British forces not far away. After it was read to another crowd of citizens - no longer were they subjects - in New York City, they tore down a statue of King George mounted on horseback, and melted it down to use the lead to make musket balls.
As a speech, the Declaration of Independence is an enormous success.
The language itself is stirring. Jefferson, who would not be publicly revealed as the main author for another twenty years, launches directly into the point of the matter. “When, in the course of human events,” it starts, with simple but potent language. By the end of that first sentence, he has already stated the whole point of the document - Britain’s former colonies have separated their bonds and now hold an equal station among the powers of the earth.
Then comes what is likely the most famous sentence in all political rhetoric - “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.”
“Truths!”, it asserts. These things are True, it proclaims. And how do you argue with the truth? We are all entitled, of right, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It then launches into what amounts to a 27 count indictment of King George and his parliament. We have discussed in other posts how the use of a repeated phrase serves the same purpose in spoken material as a bullet point does in printed material - it alerts the audience each time a new point is to be made. The technique is used here to a fault.
It sets up the points this way - “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Then, the word “He,” followed by the offense charged. It is repeated 13 times. Then the word “For” is substituted for the next nine repetitions, before reverting back to “He” to make the final five points. Interestingly, in colonial times, these 27 points were considered the more important part of the Declaration.
The concluding paragraph returns full circle, to restate what has already been said in the first sentence - that the colonies no longer are such. They are now free and independent states - “these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.”
It concludes with a solemn vow, as befits a declaration of this moment: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
When you read the Declaration, think of it as a speech. For truly, it spoke volumes to the world. It still does.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.