Many works are written to make a statement or argument for a specific cause. Writers must use different techniques in order to strengthen the arguments they are trying to make. Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., are works that argue for political freedom from oppression. Both documents use a form of repetition and points that evoke emotion to gather support from their audiences and both the implied values behind their arguments and purpose of these works strengthen the techniques that are used.
One literary technique Jefferson and King use is repetition. Jefferson uses a structure called the “periodic sentence.” The periodic sentence is a form of parallelism. It is a long sentence that makes the reader wait until the end to get to the main point. The writer balances the sentence by making each portion a similar length. The whole opening paragraph of the “Declaration of Independence” is a periodic sentence: “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” (Jacobus 78). The technique of the periodic sentence suggests the wisdom and intelligence of the writer (Jacobus 77). In his document, Jefferson lists reasons for Britain to give America her independence. Each of these reasons begins with either “He has” or “For.” This method is called “anaphora.” The redundancy of these statements serves to emphasize the point Jefferson is trying to make. It also makes the document more forceful in its appeal to King George III. By saying “he has” at the beginning of every statement, Jefferson does not give an opportunity for rebuttal because he makes it so that there is only one side of the argument. King also uses a form of repetition: alliteration. Although he does not use repetition as frequently as Jefferson does in this document, it still serves the same purpose. He uses phrases such as “tongue twisted” and “speech stammering” when describing what it feels like to explain segregation to a six-year old child (186). All of these forms of repetition help to forcefully emphasize the point that these writers are trying to make: they will no longer tolerate the oppression they have endured for so long.
Jefferson and King also use strong vocabulary to evoke emotion in their audiences. By making their readers feel passionate about what they are reading, the authors are able to gather extra support. The language they used in their writings was specific to their time, and it hit on points that would have upset or influenced their audience. This is evident in many of his justifications, such as when he says, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people” (80). The verbs Jefferson uses in this statement are powerful. They make the reader remember or at least recognize the oppression they have faced. He also refers to the Britains as “brethren” (81), adding a personal touch to the injustices and therefore making them harder to bear. King also takes a personal approach in his writing, which is obvious by putting it into letter form. When he begins his letter, he addresses his readers as “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” (181). He writes in one of the most emotional parts of the letter: “Explain to your six-year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky” (186). This statement, although very personal, is universal to everyone who was reading this document. King makes it personal by saying “you,” yet it is still universal because no one ever wants to have to explain such an atrocity to their children. Personalizing these documents helps to demonstrate the disgracefulness of the oppression that these people were facing. Political oppression from “brethren” and “fellow clergymen” can be more emotionally destroying than oppression from an unknown person or group of people.
The implied values that these writers have about their political situations help to strengthen the arguments further. Jefferson claims that it is their God-given right to be free of Great Britain and form an independent nation: “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” (78). The implied value in King’s letter is the separation between just and unjust laws. He defines a just law as a law that follows the law of God or moral codes, and an unjust law is the exact opposite. Unjust laws are demoting, while just laws encourage others (187). This explanation serves to teach people which laws must be followed. King says, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” (186). Without having some background of the implied values, Jefferson and King’s readers may not have gotten the support they needed.
Knowing the purpose of both works also helped to gather support from their readers. Jefferson and King were both trying to appeal to a large population, meaning they needed all of the support they could muster. Jefferson made it clear in his opening paragraph that the intent of the “Declaration of Independence” was “dissolve the political bands” (78) and gain freedom from Great Britain. If he had not made that clear, his readers might not have obtained what they were supposed to from the document. King’s readers already know that King is in jail for campaigning to end oppression and segregation. The implied value of his document is noted throughout the letter, but is almost unnecessary to mention.
All of these aspects of the “Declaration of Independence” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” help to strengthen Jefferson and King’s arguments and gather more support from their readers. Without using repetition and trying to evoke emotion in their readers, Jefferson and King may not have achieved what they wanted to, and without manipulating, to their benefit, the implied values and the purpose of these works, the documents would not have been nearly as successful as they were.