There are many abstractions in the Declaration of
Independence. These abstractions such as: rights, freedom, liberty and
happiness have become the foundations of American society and have
helped to shape the “American Identity.” Power, another abstraction
that reoccurs in all the major parts of the Declaration of
Independence plays an equally important role in shaping “America
identity.” One forgets the abstraction of power, because it appears in
relation to other institutions: the legislature, the King, the earth,
and the military. The abstraction of power sets the tone of the
Declaration, and shapes the colonists conception of government and
society. Power in the Declaration of Independence flows from distinct
bodies within society such as the King, the legislature, the military,
and the colonists.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines power as, “the ability
to do or effect something or anything, or to act upon a person or
thing” (OED 2536). Throughout the ages according to the dictionary the
word power has connoted similar meanings. In 1470 the word power meant
to have strength and the ability to do something, “With all thair
strang *poweir” (OED 2536) Nearly three hundred years later in 1785
the word power carried the same meaning of control, strength, and
force, “power to produce an effect, supposes power not to produce it;
otherwise it is not power but necessity” (OED 2536). This definition
explains how the power government or social institutions rests in
their ability to command people, rocks, colonies to do something they
otherwise would not do. To make the people pay taxes. To make the
rocks form into a fence. To make the colonists honor the King. The
colonialists adopt this interpretation of power. They see power as a
cruel force that has wedded them to a King who has “a history of
repeated injuries and usurptions.” The framers of the Declaration of
Independence also believe powers given by God to the people must not
be usurped. The conflict between these spheres of
power the colonists believe, justifies their rebellion.
The uses of the word power set the tone of the Declaration of
Independence. In the first sentence of the Declaration colonists
condemn the King’s violation of powers given by god to all men.
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
natures God Entitle them (Wills 375).
In this passage the writers of the Declaration of Independence
are explaining their moral claim to rebel. This right finds its
foundation on their interpretation of the abstraction of power.
Colonists perceive power as bifurcated, a force the King uses to
oppress them, and a force given to them by God allowing them to rebel.
In the Declaration of Independence the colonists also write about
power as a negative force. In the following quote power takes on a
negative meaning because power rests in the hands of the King and not
the people, “to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative
powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned” (Wills 376). Power
when mentioned in association with the power of the people to make
their own laws has a positive connotation, “He has affected to render
the Military independent of and superior to Civil power” (Wills
These two different uses of the word power transform the
meaning and tone of the Declaration of Independence. The meaning
changes from just a Declaration of independence from Britain because
of various violations of tax laws, military expenditures, and
colonists’ rights; to a fundamental disagreement about power. Whether
the King or civil authorities have a right to power. The colonists
believe in the decentralization of power. The British support a
centralized monarchy. The colonists believe power should flow up from
the people to the rulers. The British believe power should flow down
from the King to the subjects.
The two different uses of the world power also change the tone
of the document. The colonist’s definition of power as coercive in the
hands of the King and good in the hands of civil authorities
identifies the King as the enemy. He takes on the role of the enemy
because he clutches the power in pre-colonial society. The tone of the
Declaration of Independence becomes more severe; the Declarations
vilifying of the fundamental power imbalances between the colonies and
the King make the break between the two unbridgeable. The break
between the colonies and the King became not just a tax or policy
difference anymore, but a fundamental philosophical difference.
The colonists meaning of the word power changes depending on
who possesses the power. In the hands of the King power corrupts in
the hands of the colonists and the people it takes on divine
qualities. The colonist’s analysis of who has power fascinates. The
colonists believe power to be a force that emanates from fixed points
in society. In contrast more modern thinkers such as Nietzche and
Foucault believe power flows throughout all of society (Miller 15).
The colonists perceive in England power emanates directly from the
King. Because of this interpretation they blame the King for the many
wrongs they list in the body of the Declaration of Independence. The
colonists do not blame the people of England or the English
legislature. This allows the tone of the Declaration of Independence
to soften. Instead, of being an attack on the institutions of English
society the Declaration only attacks the King, the holder of power.
Foucault’s interpretation of power would differ sharply from the
framers of the Declaration Of Independence. Foucault sees power as
coming from the many technologies that society uses to control people:
tax systems the law, patriarchy, family systems, legislatures, and
even democracy. These technologies according to Foucault all represent
different ways in which society controls its members (Foucault 307).
The King under Foucault’s interpretation of power bares little
responcibilety for the grievances colonists have with England. The
King in his view plays merely a role in the web of different
technologies of control. Foucault would see the King as being
controlled by many of the forces in society. Fulfilling his role is
not so much his manifestation of his power as the power of English
society and its ability to control the colonies and their inhabitants.
If the colonists when writing the Declaration of Independence had this
conception of power in mind the, the tone of the document would have
been much stronger indicting all of English society.
The colonists interpretation of power has serious
repercussions on the subsequent formulation of the US government.
Because the colonists philosophical break with England was over the
power of the King the framers of the Declaration of Independence
sought to prevent a monarchy from arising in the United States. They
sought to disperse power among the states and set up a system of
counterbalancing branches of government that would prevent any single
branch from having too much power. The ideas of federalism and
decentralization were a direct outgrowth of the colonists
interpretation of power. Power, in the Declaration of Independence
carries more than just grammatical significance to the document. It
shapes the document’s meaning making it philosophically harsh toward
the institution of the King and tempered toward English society.
Wills, Garry. Inventing America. New York: Random House, 1978
Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Anchor Books,
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1975
Oxford English Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1994