A version of this essay was first published in The Reader, v19, Autumn 2005. pp. 59-63. It is published here under under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 license, August 2006.
American Literature and the Declaration of Independence.
By Chris Routledge
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 emphasise 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 unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
Compare this with the style of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published first in 1855, in which the poet builds his case with repetition and the same accumulative momentum. Like many American writers of the mid-nineteenth century, Whitman seems to stand between European Romanticism and modernity, but he also saw himself as a distinctively American poet and the stylistic link back to Jefferson’s most distinctive of American documents is not difficult to see:
I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals …. they are so placid and
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied …. not one is demented with the mania of
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them;
They bring me tokens of myself …. they evince them plainly in their
Whitman wrote at the end of the Romantic period and Jefferson at its beginning, but the connection between them goes deeper than rhetorical devices. The Declaration concludes: “these United Colonies are and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown … as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” In declaring the nation’s right to these liberties alongside the “inalienable” human rights outlined in the preamble, Jefferson was in tune with his time. The belief in human rights and the freedom to rebel is straight from John Locke’s First Treatise of Government (1690), but the replacement of Mason’s right to hold property with the right to pursue happiness suggests a more Romantic emphasis on sensation. The Declaration is not only a rational response to the wrongs perceived by the colonists, but an emotional one too.
It is this emotional sense of being different, of following dreams, and pursuing obsessions that has come to define a key strand in the American literary tradition. Whitman’s exploration and celebration of self is one manifestation, but his emphasis on personal revelation in a context of community and shared convictions can be seen in earlier writers, including Philip Freneau, whose optimistic, jingoistic poem “On Mr Paine’s Rights of Man” (1795) concludes:
So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a king, to see the end of time.
Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841) argues for the kind of self-confidence and self will that Jefferson displays in the Declaration: “Speak your latent conviction and it shall become the universal sense; for always the inmost becomes the outmost.”
Consciously or otherwise the sentiment and ideals of the Declaration had an enormous influence on literary thinkers in the following two centuries, but because it is a political document, aimed at resolving a specific issue, Jefferson’s text does not explore, or even hint at, the problems that might lie in the future. It is left to writers such as Herman Melville, whose deranged sea captain Ahab chases his dream for the wrong reasons, or Edith Wharton, whose characters often find that the pursuit of happiness leads to misery, to point out the limitations of the Jeffersonian ideal. Yet even when American writers are troubled by practical aspects of American life, the principle of declaring and maintaining independence remains strong. For example in his masterpiece “Howl” the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg made deliberate efforts to recapture the self-defining thrill of being alive that Whitman celebrates, and does so in a style that Whitman, and perhaps Jefferson, would have recognised, but he writes from the point of view of what he sees as social project gone awry. Similarly Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is sceptical of authority, bureaucracy, and American capitalism, but Yossarian’s willingness to go his own way is a statement of confidence in Jeffersonian thinking; freedom and self-government are not always easy, but they are better than the alternative.
All writing is in some way an act of defiance, produced with confidence and a degree of self-regard. Some writing goes further, managing to be politically defiant and striking in a literary sense too. In English literature Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, or Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” poems, or Orwell’s Animal Farm might fall into this category, but in common with most other world literatures the English tradition does not have an equivalent to Jefferson’s Declaration. Not only is the Declaration the founding text of the American nation, but it is arguably a cornerstone around which American writers have built an entire literary tradition. Whether by borrowing stylistic resonances, or exploring the implications and consequences of its central principles, Jefferson’s text stands behind many of the most important literary works of the last two centuries and because of its political stature its influence seems unlikely to diminish. Gore Vidal concludes his book with a quotation from John Adams, who a few hours after Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826 is reputed to have said: “Thomas Jefferson still lives.”
(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, 2005).
(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, 2005).