I thought I’d engage in the “pursuit of happiness” today by doing one of my favorite leisure activities, criticizing the efforts of others. My neighbors look like they have a grand cookout going next door, and the people down the street are loading up their boat trailer for an outing on the lake. Later tonight, there will be several fireworks displays to choose from.
I won’t be enjoying my holiday with any of these frivolous pursuits. Instead, I think it’s important that someone point out the awkward and archaic writing style of our Founding Fathers, as exemplified by their 1776 term paper entitled “A Declaration of Independence.”
I’m not positive it’s a term paper, but it sure reads like one, what with all the run-on sentences and pretentious word choices and calls for armed insurrection. The Declaration is one of America’s most hallowed documents. This is not because it’s concise and well-reasoned but rather, I think, because it’s handwritten in calligraphy on yellowed parchment and contains lots of words like “usurpation” and “consanguinity.” It eventually gets to the point (King of England bad, New England good), however, it uses such a circuitous route to get there that a reader’s attention is easily lost.
I’ve spent my entire adult career as either an editor or proofreader, and so I take great pride in knowing how to properly use the language. Despite recent debate on this site as to whether or not it’s okay to use “summit” as a verb, and my own internal debate about whether I should counter this challenge from my old college roommate by urging him to “eat me,” I think of myself as an able writer. I probably could’ve even been an English teacher if I’d wanted to.
What follows, then, is my attempt to critique the document that paved the way for this great nation of laws, in which people are free to pursue their dreams for well-being and happiness, as long as that doesn’t include having a secure job or reasonably priced healthcare. The sacred words of the Declaration appear below in black, and my notes follow each paragraph in red.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. [This should be broken up into at least three sentences, which would then enable you to drop one completely. Also, instead of “when in the course of human events,” I might suggest the more colloquial “every now and then” or “from time to time.”]
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. –Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world. [Where do I begin? I know what you mean by “inalienable” but your average reader is going to think they’re getting a science fiction short story. I’d soften the reference to “absolute despotism” so you don’t lose any readers who might be on the fence, and instead go with something like “annoying inconvenience.” Don’t use “usurpation” twice in the same paragraph when “being grabby” might do just as well. And this “Prudence” you introduce needs to have her character fleshed out if the reader is going to sympathize with her.]
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. [I like where you’re going here. People love bullet points. You’ve got the makings of a great PowerPoint slide in these next few punchy lines.]
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. [I’d lose the semicolon. Though it might be technically proper, most people these days think it’s an emoticon, and a forceful call for freedom and justice is only diminished by a winky eye.]
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. [I don’t know what “inestimable” means so you better take it out.]
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. [Criticizing the King’s choice of hotels tends to diminish his other negative traits, like the tyranny and such.]
He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people. [I’d make the same point about “manly firmness” that I did about “inalienable” — this is not a bodice ripper and it’s not sci fi.]
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within. [I like the sense of action you’re trying to portray here with words like “annihilation” and “convulsions” and “invasion” and “exercise.” Keep this up, and you may find yourself writing the screenplay for the next Vin Diesel movie.]
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands. [If you’re trying to make a point about immigration here, you’ve lost me. Also, you should consider a synonym for “hither,” and I wouldn’t recommend “thither.”]
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers. [Good to see you back on the snappy bullet points.]
He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. [Now you’re cooking.]
He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. [Again with the “hither”? Also, note that “eat out” has at least two unintended meanings you might want to avoid.]
He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature. [Would you be happier if they took a seat? JK ]
He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power. [Timely stuff, in light of the McChrystal story. Way to keep it current.]
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation: [Okay, and that would include…?]
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: [I hope all these colons are just a conversion error. Did you start out in Word Perfect then switch to Word?]
For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states: [You might be getting a little carried away with the bullet points.]
For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world: [Or might each of these be individual slides?]
For imposing taxes on us without our consent: [Hope you’ve got some clip art]
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury: [My favorite is the one with the guy holding a pointer.]
For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses: [Some sea gulls could probably work here.]
For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies: [Don’t bring Canada into this unless you’re looking for a big fight on your hands.]
For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments: [Serial comma preceding the “and” is not used in American English.]
For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. [Can’t use a period here — it’s not a complete sentence].
He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us. [Are you sure you don’t mean “advocated”?]
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. [Are we talking Vin Diesel here or King George III?]
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation. [“Perfidy” will be like, zoom, right over most readers’ heads.]
He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands. [Suddenly this is a pirate story? Focus!!]
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. [Very politically incorrect. A more frightening modifier of “savage” might be “Michael”.]
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. [Finally, I see you’re getting to the point. We don’t ask that these essays be a minimum of a thousand words just so you can draw things out. We want instead a thorough argument.]
Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. 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. [You’ll change your feelings once the Beatles come along, trust me.]
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of 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, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. 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. [Do you think 18 commas in one sentence might be a tad excessive? There’s also a lot of what I call “la-di-da” in here — sounding all high and mighty and self-important. It’s like the office memo that begins “it has come to my attention” — totally off-putting.]
[All in all, you have some very strong messages here but they tend to get lost in your attempt to show how many big words you know. Breaking free from the powerful English empire is admittedly a difficult enterprise, and you need strong language to accomplish such an effort, though bullets and guns are also going to be helpful. Don’t fall for that old bromide about ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ — that’s a load of crap. Speaking of which, I’m taking off an automatic ten points for submitting your work in longhand rather than in an electronic format. How am I supposed to submit this to TurnItIn.com?]