Thomas Jefferson: Contribution to American Literature

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      THOMAS JEFFERSON (1743-1826), the third President of the United States, wrote much political prose and many letters, which have been gathered into ten large volumes. Ignoring these, he left directions that the words, "Author of the Declaration of American Independence," should immediately follow his name on his monument. No other American prose writer has, in an equal number of words, yet surpassed this Declaration of Independence. Its influence has encircled the world and modified the opinions of nations as widely separated as the French and the Japanese.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

      Jefferson may have borrowed some of his ideas from Magna Charta (1215) and the Petition of Right (1628); he may have incorporated in this Declaration the yearnings that thousands of human souls had already felt, but he voiced those yearnings so well that his utterances have become classic. It has been said that he "poured the soul of the continent" into that Declaration, but he did more than that. He poured into it the soul of all freedom-loving humanity, and he was accepted as the spokesman of the dweller on the Seine as enthusiastically as of the revolutionists in America. Those who have misconstrued the meaning of his famous expression, "All men are created equal" have been met with the adequate reply, "No intelligent man has ever misconstrued it except intentionally."

      America has no Beowulf celebrating the slaying of land-devastating monsters, but she has in this Declaration a deathless battle song against the monsters that would throttle Liberty. Outside of Holy Writ, what words are more familiar to our ears than these?—

"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. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

      Every student will find his comprehension of American literature aided by a careful study of this Declaration. This trumpet-tongued declaration of the fact that every man has an equal right with every other man to his own life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has served as an ideal to inspire some of the best things in our literature. This ideal has not yet been completely reached, but it is finding expression in every effort for the social and moral improvements of our population. Jefferson went a step beyond the old Puritans in maintaining that happiness is a worthy object of pursuit. Modern altruists are also working on this line, demanding a fuller moral and industrial liberty, and endeavoring to develop a more widespread capacity for happiness.

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