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

      Thomas Jefferson was a man of eclectic interests and inheritor of the tradition previously held by Byrd of Westover. He has been seen as a man of frontier and a cultivated planter, an idealist and utilitarian, advocate of rights to all and the spokesperson of the farmer in particular. He played a central role in the formation of America as a nation. His A Summary View of the Rights of British American (1774) was immensely influential. In This book, he argued that the Americans had effectively freed themselves from the British authority. He was the virtual writer of the Declaration of the Independence, relied on the principle of natural rights and the argumentative tool of reason to construct the blue print of the American nation. He also wrote another book Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) written to the response to a questionnaire sent to him.

      The letters exchanged between John Adams and Jefferson reveal two contrary visions of the new American republic and its fate. So are the letters exchanged between John Adams and his powerful wife, Abigail Adams (1744-1818) who raises the serious issues of freedom and equality or women. Abagail urged her husband and his colleagues to be ‘more generous and favorable to women in their preparation of new laws for the nation. A writer like, Thomas Paine spoke for the need for the female equality in his letter An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex (1775). The Writings of Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) are very important. She wrote two plays, and a number of poems. He also wrote a series of essays published later in Massachusetts Magazine between 1792 and 1794. Her other important three-volume work was The Gleaner (1798) Her arguments were built on a firm belief in the equality of male and female souls. She helped to raise an important issue that was foregrounded in the next century.

      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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