Declaration of Independence
On June 28, 1776 a draft of the Declaration of Independence(1) was presented to the Continental Congress by a committee led by Thomas Jefferson, who had worked on the document over the preceding fifteen days. In a little over two weeks Jefferson had created the most important political text in the modern history of the Western world. Not only did it bring into existence the most powerful political and economic force of the last century, but it defined a nation and encouraged its people, setting them apart from the traditions and values of their former colonial masters.
But Jefferson’s text goes further than merely stating a political purpose. It is not only a declaration of belief, but the enactment of that belief; few texts have such an existence and few writers enjoy the privilege of their writing also being an act of will. The Declaration is also significant in literary terms, from its rhetorical forcefulness to the elegance and seductiveness of its rhythms and cadences. Explicit political purpose does not always sit easily with literary quality, especially when it slips over into didacticism, but when high idealism, political conviction, and literary skill converge as they do in Jefferson’s Declaration, entire civilizations are written into existence. When the Declaration was adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776 (it was not finally signed by representatives of all thirteen colonies until July 9) it not only severed ties with the British Crown but established a defiant tone for the literary tradition of the new nation.
The Declaration is usually remembered for its preamble, which contains the famous sentence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is confident, inspiring stuff, drawing on many sources, but principally John Locke and George Mason, constitutional architect of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Jefferson’s Declaration was discussed by a committee, amended, tweaked, and even toned down, but the clarity of his voice is compelling. Gore Vidal, in his 2003 book Inventing a Nation(2) agrees that this was always much more than a legal and political document and to emphasize the point he compares Jefferson’s effort with Mason’s earlier version of the well-known passage: “all men are born free and independent and have certain inherent natural rights … the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Vidal is a little unkind to Mason when he describes Jefferson’s achievement with the Declaration as “making literature of Mason’s somewhat desultory laundry list,” but he has a point. In Jefferson’s hands the rhythm and building pressure to the revelation of its three central human rights elevate the political necessities to heroic ideals. In fact the Declaration proved so stirring that Washington ordered it read to the American troops. Stephen E Lucas, in his essay “The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence”(3) notes that Jefferson turned to the writing of Milton, Pope, and Shakespeare, among others, and that he wrote “for the ear as well as for the eye.”
Beyond the famous preamble the declaration itself is a powerful list of wrongs against the colonies perpetrated by the British Crown. In making a list of charges against King George III Jefferson inaugurated an American literary tradition that would celebrate defiance, rebellion, and self-definition. Certainly the pugilistic mood of the main section of the Declaration can be felt thumping away in writers from Walt Whitman to Norman Mailer and beyond. The main body of the Declaration is a barrage of accusations as this example shows:
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and...
Cited: (1) All the historical documents mentioned here can be found at the Library of Congress through the “American Memory” web site: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/help/constRedir.html (accessed 30 March, 2014).
(2) Vidal, Gore, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
(3) Lucas, Stephen, “The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence,” 1989. Available online at The National Archives Experience: http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/charters/declaration_style.html (accessed 30 March, 2014).
(4) McMichael, G. L., & Leonard, J. S. (2010). Concise Anthology of American Literature (7th e.d.). Boston: Longman
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