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Abstractions In Power-Writing Essay, Research Paper

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

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