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This book sets the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution in general in the context of a revolution in rhetorical theory and practice that sought to discover (or theorize into existence) a new language of performative persuasion, a natural language equivalent to natural law that would permit, by its self-evidence, perfect understanding and the galvanizing of public opinion. According to the period's rhetoricians, that new affective language comprised not words but the tones, gestures and expressive countenance with which they were delivered. Consequently, an orator's primary obligation was no longer to communicate thoughts and feelings, but to display the experiencing of those thoughts and feelings, to make the auditor respond with an involuntary sympathy rather than with rational and voluntary consent. Preoccupied with the spectacle of sincerity, the quest for a natural language led paradoxically to a greater theatricalization of public speaking as well as to a new social dramaturgy and a deeply self-conscious performative understanding of selfhood.
Concerned with recovering what was assumed but not spoken in the realm of eighteenth-century speech and action, the book treats Jefferson (whose fascination with Homer, Ossian, Patrick Henry, and music theory all relate to the new oratorical ideal) as a conflicted participant in the new rhetoric and a witness to its social costs and benefits. Rhetorical and aesthetic issues, the author demonstrates, open up to larger concerns about the nature of authorship and subjectivity, the value of originality, the character of personal and historical agency (what it means to be an independent "actor" in history) and finally to the construction of a test definition of being an American: the possession of a sensitivity to what the Declaration calls "the voice of justice & of consanguinity."
By demonstrating the intimate connections between the history of politics and the history of rhetoric and by tracing the larger issues of the Declaration to and through a wide array of cultural expressions - popular fiction, Windsor chairs, fast-day proclamations, fugues, ice-skating, trompe l'oeil wax sculptures, acting textbooks, and the accents with which Jefferson marked his reading copy of the Declaration - Declaring Independence offers, on the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth, the first full-length cultural contextualization of America's founding document, as well as an interdisciplinary brief for reconsidering and enlarging the kinds of "facts" that are traditionally judged to be relevant to the understanding of a major historical document. It also offers a wide-ranging interdisciplinary analysis of how a new model for the public presentation and the spectatorial consumption of private life became a defining element of American culture.
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“From the simple fact that Jefferson’s text was intended to be read aloud as a literal declaration of political independence, Fliegelman has woven a truly brilliant picture of Jefferson, the document, and American politics and letters. . . . The result is a profoundly exciting new way of understanding the Declaration, its author, and the performative act of the Revolution itself.”—Isaac Kramnick, Cornell University.
“Will more or less immediately transform current study of 18th-century American literature and culture.”—Mitchell Breitwieser, University of California, Berkeley.
Jay Fliegelman is Professor of English and Chairman of the American Studies Program at Stanford University.
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