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[Thomas Jefferson was born, of a good family, at Shadwell, Albemarle Co., Va., April 13, 1743. He received an excellent education at William and Mary College, saw much of the best society, studied law under Chancellor Wythe, began its practice, and achieved at once a considerable success. At the age of twenty-six he entered the House of Burgesses, and served off and on with much distinction until the breaking out of the Revolution. He then entered Congress, where he became the chief drafter of state papers, the most important of these being the Declaration of Independence. After this he returned to Virginian politics, labored successfully to modify the state laws in a democratic direction, and served as governor for two years, during which period his administration was much harassed by the British. In 1783 he reentered Congress and took part in important legislation. The next year he went to France as minister plenipotentiary, succeeding Franklin in 1785. His career as a diplomat was distinctly successful, but was cut short by his acceptance of the post of Secretary of State in Washington's first cabinet. Under the new government he was subsequently made Vice-President in 1797 and President from 1801 to 1809. His two presidential administrations were not marked by much executive strength, but the first secured to the country the vast territory of Louisiana. He was succeeded by his disciple Madison, and during his retirement at Monticello maintained his grip upon politics by his large correspondence. From 1817 to his death, on July 4, 1826, he was mainly interested in founding the University of Virginia. Throughout his old age he was looked up to as the chief political theorist and most typical republican of the country, but this public homage entailed a hospitality that left him poor. The best editions of his writings are the so-called Congressional, in nine volumes, and that of P. L. Ford, not yet complete.]
IF Jefferson be judged by any single piece of work, except perhaps the Declaration of Independence, or by the general qualities of his style, he cannot in any fairness be termed a great writer. His Notes on Virginia, his only book, may be justly said to be interesting and valuable, but cannot rank high as literature. His state papers, with the exception made above, and his official reports are excellent of their kind, but their kind is not sufficiently literary to warrant any one in holding them up as models. Even his countless letters, while fascinating to the student of his character, are rather barren of charm when read without some ulterior purpose. In short, while Jefferson was plainly the most widely cultured of our early statesmen and was thus in a real sense a man of letters, he would be little read to-day if his fame depended either upon his authorship of a masterpiece in the shape of a book or upon his possession of a powerful or charming style.
We see at once that in at least two important respects Jefferson is inferior to Franklin as a writer. Franklin possessed a style and has given us a classic. Nor is it at all clear that, judged from the point of view of mere readableness, Jefferson rises above or equals some of his contemporaries, such as Fisher Ames, or Alexander Hamilton, or his rival as a drafter of state papers, John Dickinson. Yet he was surely in one important respect a greater writer than any of these men, not even Franklin excepted. His was the most influential pen of his times upon his contemporaries, and it is to his writings that posterity turns with most interest whenever the purposes, the hopes, the fears of the great Revolutionary epoch become matters of study. If Franklin's writings reveal a personality, Jefferson's reveal, if the exaggeration may be pardoned, the aspirations and ideals of an age.
They reveal also the personality of Jefferson himself, but so subtle was that great man that we can never feel that we understand him fully. We may learn to understand, however, with fair thoroughness the theory of government that he had worked out for himself from French and English sources; we may see how every letter he wrote carried his democratic doctrines further afield; we may feel him getting a firm grasp not merely upon his contemporaries but upon generations yet to be ; finally, we can observe yawning across his later writings the political chasm into which the young republic was one day to fall. But books that enable us to do all this are certainly great in their way, and so is the hand that penned their contents. Jefferson is not a Burke, yet it is as true to say that he must be read by any one who would comprehend the origin and development of American political thought, as it is to say that Burke must be read by any similar student of British political thought. But has not Jefferson given us a masterpiece?
In a book, no;
in a state paper, yes. The Declaration of Independence, whatever may be the justice of the criticisms directed against this and that clause or statement, is a true piece of literature, because ever since it was written it has been alive with emotion.
It may have charged George III with crimes he never committed, but even if we were to view it as pure fiction (which it is not), it would nevertheless, though we were to read it a thousand times, stir every one of us that loves liberty and his native land and has a sense for the rhetoric of denunciation and aspiration. It answers the chief practical tests of good literature - the test of contemporaneous popularity at home and abroad, and the test of current popular appreciation. The man who drafted such a document knew the spirit of his own people and could express it to their satisfaction; to deny him literary power of a high order would therefore be pedantic.
In conclusion, while we are abundantly justified in including Jefferson in any volume devoted to the important prose-writers of America, we should not be justified in proposing his writings as models for any student of English. Our national taste has changed, and the fervent eloquence of the Declaration would be distinctly out of place to-day. If we wrote letters to the same extent that our ancestors did, we should still need to set before ourselves writers of more ease and freedom and charm than Jefferson, if we wished to produce upon our own contemporaries a tithe of the influence he managed to convey in his somewhat cumbrous and stiff though very subtle fashion. This is only to say that the art of writing prose has made great strides since Jefferson's time; but we must not forget that, if his pen was not that of a chastened writer, it was par excellence that of a ready and wonderfully effective one.
W. P. TRENT
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
A DECLARATION by the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in General Congress assembled.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal ; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable 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 ; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such forin, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their happiness. Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes: and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations begun at a distinguished period and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to expunge their former systems of government. The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest ; but all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.
prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world, for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.
He has refused his assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good :
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained, and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people unless those people would relinquish the right of representation, in the legislature, a right inestimable to them, and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, and uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative houses repeatedly and continually for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the right of the people :
He has refused for a long time after such dissolutions to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise, the state remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without and convulsions within :
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states, for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither; and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands:
He has suffered the administration of justice totally to cease in some of these states, refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers :
He has made judges dependant on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices and the amount and payment of their salaries :
He has erected a multitude of new offices by a self assumed power and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance :
He has kept among us in times of peace, standing arinies and ships of war without the consent of our legislatures :