Few people tend to think of the Declaration of Independence as a literary work. Yet, it is a document that possesses graceful writing, vigorous sentences, and a logical flow that demonstrates why John Adams told Thomas Jefferson that he should draft the document: “Because you write ten times better than I do.” In its own way it even served as a model for a new genre of political rhetoric: the declaration of independence. There had never been that kind of political document before the American Revolution. After 1776, more than 110 similarly-named documents were penned around the world by nations overthrowing colonialism or declaring their sovereignty.
One of the first scholars to examine the Declaration from a literary point of view was Moses Coit Tyler (1835-1900), a professor of history at Cornell University who had originally trained as a scholar of English language and literature. Tyler’s 1897 book The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783 examined the literary talents and qualities of figures from the Founding Era, including Thomas Jefferson. Tyler carefully detailed criticisms of the document both at the time of the Revolution and afterward, including British objections to the use of natural law arguments to justify “rebellion,” the hypocrisy of slavery and the statement “all men are created equal,” and even some fellow Founders’ comments including one by John Adams who argued that the Declaration lacked originality. However, Tyler wrote that one of the strengths of the Declaration was that it captured the issues that had occupied and vexed Americans since the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765.
According to Tyler:
Indeed, for such a paper as Jefferson was commissioned to write, the one quality which it could not properly have had—the one quality which would have been fatal to its acceptance either by the American Congress or by the American people—is originality. They were then at the culmination of a tremendous controversy over alleged grievances of the most serious kind—a controversy that had been fiercely raging for at least twelve years. In the course of that long dispute, every phase of it, whether as to abstract right or constitutional privilege or personal procedure, had been presented in almost every conceivable form of speech. At last, they had resolved, in view of all this experience, no longer to prosecute the controversy as members of the empire: they had resolved to revolt, and casting off forever their ancient fealty to the British crown, to separate from the empire, and to establish themselves as a new nation among the nations of the earth. In this emergency, as it happened, Jefferson was called upon to put into form a suitable statement of the chief considerations which prompted them to this great act of revolution, and which, as they believed, justified it. What, then, was Jefferson to do ? Was he to regard himself as a mere literary essayist, set to produce before the world a sort of prize dissertation, —a calm, analytic, judicial treatise on history and politics with a particular application to Anglo-American affairs,— one essential merit of which would be its originality as a contribution to historical and political literature ? Was he not, rather, to regard himself as, for the time being, the very mouthpiece and prophet of the people whom he represented, and as such required to bring together and to set in order, in their name, not what was new, but what was old; to gather up into his own soul, as much as possible, whatever was then also in their souls—their very thoughts and passions, their ideas of constitutional law, their interpretations of fact, their opinions as to men and as to events in all that ugly quarrel; their notions of justice, of civic dignity, of human rights; finally, their memories of wrongs which seemed to them intolerable, especially of wrongs inflicted upon them during those twelve years by the hands of insolent and brutal men, in the name of the king, and by his apparent command ?
Tyler’s almost-biblical phrase about Jefferson becoming a “very mouthpiece and prophet of the people” probably seems maudlin by our standards. Tyler the historian was also an ordained Episcopal priest. However, his frank assessments of Jefferson’s faults, his willingness to discuss criticism’s of one of America’s most revered Founders, and his careful examination the Revolution’s writing as literary expression remains some the most important and influential scholarship on the Declaration. Though dated, his work is worth consulting so the reader can understand the Declaration as a product of the mind of Thomas Jefferson as well as a reflection of the American mind. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin or John Adams could have written a more felicitous document, but it is doubtful that they could have written a more useful document. “Probably no public paper ever more perfectly satisfied the immediate purposes for which it was sent forth,” Tyler wrote. “Six years afterward, in a review of the whole struggle, a great American scholar expressed his sense of the relation of this document to it, by saying, that ‘into the monumental act of Independence,’ Jefferson had ‘poured the soul of the continent.’”