Literary Review: Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson)

Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence”

Thomas Jefferson is esteemed as one of the most significant figures in American history, despite being misrepresented by scholars. The former American president, credited with a plethora of writings, is most famous for his Declaration of Independence. This political paper is the founding document for the United States of America. Through Jefferson, the Founding Fathers declared their independence from England and the rationale in support of their action (Raphael 117-152). Not generally thought of as a literary work, a few prominent historians have conducted critical analyses of its content, style, and sources. Some scholars focus on the text’s creative technique, while others ponder its sources and their relevance. Americans are wide-ranging in their evaluation of its assignment in the development of the county’s heritage and in their interpretations of its implications. Scholars dedicate a great deal of effort to study the Declaration. However, instead of expounding on the understanding, it greatly increases the amounts and variances of viewpoints.

On the surface, the declaration has several distinct messages. These include the points that people have the right and duty to abolish and replace an oppressive government, that Britain had an oppressive government, so consequently the American people have a right and duty to abolish and replace political ties with Britain. Dr. Stephen Lucas, professor of communication arts, University of Wisconsin, describes this deductive reasoning as the conditions required to overthrow a government (“The Stylistic Artistry”). The attacks on England’s government in the latter portion of the document include the “proof” for America to request independence from her former enslaver. This scholar disagrees with the notion that the declaration has a theological agenda when he writes, “these religious connections and meanings . . . have been added by others later was never implied as written or as understood at the time by it authors.” He feels that they are not part of what is originally important with respect to the founders’ original understandings, meanings, and intentions.

Bold in its insurgence to Great Britain, the document is bold in its word choice. Each word and sentence has a profound and distinct meaning. In his internet article, Lucas asserts that the language is “brief, free of verbiage, a model of clear, concise, simple statement.” The document is to the point and comprehensible, so that the readers should have no difficulty in appreciating its plain meanings. In one paragraph, the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence summarizes European philosopher John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government.” He discusses that as a master of the English language, Jefferson was meticulous in choosing his words. He refers to the statesman’s vast familiarity with treaties and scholarly works of the day, and to his writing of the essay, “Thoughts on English Prosody.” This unpublished dissertation deals predominantly with poetry, but demonstrates his keenness for the English language. Jefferson’s facility for eloquent writing greatly assists in relaying his message.

Many feel the Declaration of Independence to be a medium through which Thomas Jefferson could propagandize his doctrine to the masses. Harvard professor Alfred Kazin complies with this thought when he contrasts Jefferson to the British revolutionist, Thomas Paine, one the sources for his declaration, by discussing the historical figures’ differing opinions on the connection between revolution in government and revolution in religion (8-9). In his book, “God and the American Writer,” Kazin writes about the background of early American literature and its adamancy of the supremacy of God. He shows the divergence from this standard with the progression of times. Kazin denotes Jefferson as being among the last of this order of writers in America (110).

Historian Allen Jayne disagrees, insisting that the declaration is not meant to give a religious foundation to this nation or its laws (83-86). He contends that it is not intended to give a theological dissertation on the design of humanity. According to Jayne, the declaration instead suggests a theology well-suited to democracy (89-91). This theology incorporates concepts of rational thinking and “Nature’s God.” It also encompasses those of human equality and government by consent, the idea drawn from Locke. Jayne’s scrutiny of the document brings to light contemporary discussions over separation of church and state. He suggests that Jefferson would most likely not agree with those who see the appeals to the “Creator” in the declaration as a rationalization for some merger of government and religion. He feels that Jefferson had in mind an ethical philosophy, wherein all persons enjoy a natural ability to make moral choices. In addition to explaining the colonies’ severance from England, the declaration transmits what Jayne refers to as a “heterodox theology,” giving the view that it is necessary to the founding of a government by the people(6). Lord Bolingbroke gave Jefferson his deistic theology, which surfaces in the declaration when he refers to “Nature’s God,” a term coined by the British aristocrat. Jayne discusses Jefferson’s possible influences of the Scottish Enlightenment and the religious liberalism of Lord Bolingbroke, a hero of Jefferson. .

Mt. Holyoke College history professor and Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis agrees that the revolutionists in the Scottish Enlightenment were a major influence for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. He also is of the same opinion that Lockean philosophies, such as a government held accountable to the people, played a major role in Jefferson’s 1776 mindset. Ellis writes, “. . . the founders were always self- conscious about how posterity would view their decisions and their behavior,” to illustrate the importance of their deeds (23). Northwestern professor and avid historian Gary Wills emphasizes the magnitude of Scottish influences in the declaration. Wills compares Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence with the final, accepted version, disputing assumptions about both Jefferson and the declaration. He argues that Jefferson’s dream was one wherein the basis of society is a trust and reliance among men, rather than selfishness. He asserts that the Declaration of Independence is commonly misinterpreted because of not placing its language accurately in the perspective of eighteenth-century thought (Inventing America 115-145).

Scholars debate the specific sources as well as the actual extent to which the influences had in the drafting of the text. A revisionist scholar, Wills believes the declaration to be an expression of Jefferson’s ideal of a social commune. However Jayne contradicts this idea, pointing out that if the rights of the community are to supersede those of the individual, the result would be slavery. Ellis holds that Jefferson’s work is the result of the “harmonizing sentiments of the day.” The considered perspectives of history, political theory, linguistics, and style each encompass various approaches which give way to valuable insights into the Declaration of Independence. This founding document is of supreme significance to America’s heritage and legacy, but is still often viewed as a classical text. Hence, a scholarly approach to the Declaration of Independence must employ prudence, lest such an action undermine its status in American tradition.

Works Cited

Stephen E. Lucas. “The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence.” National Archives Experience. 14 June 05. <www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/charters/declaration_style.htm>.

Ellis, Joseph, Ed. What did the Declaration Declare? Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 1997

23.

 

Jayne, Allen. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy and

Theology. Lexington, KY: The UP of Kentucky, 1998. 6, 83-86, 89-91.

Kazin, Alfred. God and the American Writer. New York: Vintage, 1997. 8-9, 110.

 

Raphael, Ray. Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past. New York: New

Press, 2004. 117-152.

Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Boston:

Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 115-145.

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