The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. American Political Writing, 1760–1789

§ 13. The Declaration of Independence

For the writing of the Declaration of Independence (4 July, 1776) Jefferson had had some preparation, in a way, through two publications already favourably known to members of the Congress. In 1774 he had published at Williamsburg A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Set Forth in Some Resolutions Intended for the Instruction of the Present Delegates of the People of Virginia now in Convention, in which, with somewhat flamboyant boldness of phrase, he had offered to the king “the advice of your great American council,” and had appealed to him to open his breast “to liberal and expanded thought,” that the name of George the Third might not be “a blot in the page of history.” In June, 1775, he had framed an Address of the House of Burgesses, on the subject of Lord North’s conciliatory resolution, which was adopted by the house and served as the model for the report on the same resolution which was approved by the Congress in July. He had also, as we have seen, collaborated with Dickinson in the preparation of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.

The real preparation, however, lay, not in Jefferson’s training or skill as a writer, nor in the possession by him of extraordinary insight or prophetic vision, but in the succession of events for the fifteen years past and in the innumerable pamphlets and essays which those had called out. The conduct of the king, the ministry, and the Parliament, the history and necessities of the colonies, and the constitutional foundations of empire had all been repeatedly and ably examined by lawyers and publicists, and the findings set forth by accomplished writers, long before Jefferson was called upon to say the final word. Of all the criticisms that have been passed upon the Declaration of Independence, the least to the point is that it is not original. The material was at hand, the argument had been elaborated, the conclusions had been drawn. For originality there was as little opportunity as there was need. What was required now was a concise summing up of the whole matter, full enough to give a clear impression of completeness, vigorous and bold enough to serve as a national manifesto, and polished, dignified, and incisive enough to catch the ear, to linger in the memory, and to bear endless repetition. That Jefferson met this need with consummate success, working into one brief statement doctrine, accusation, argument, and declaration of freedom, was a demonstration that the hour and the man had met.

The period of active hostilities (1775–1781), which had already begun when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, was not characterized by literary activity. On the American side, at least, the case had been fully stated, and with the decision of the Congress to accept no terms of conciliation that did not recognize independence, there was no longer an English-speaking audience to which to appeal; while to France and Holland, whose aid was sought, the appeal was necessarily diplomatic rather than literary. With the recourse to arms, pamphleteers and essayists entered the army, or busied themselves with public service in Congress, state, or local community. Dickinson, who had drawn back when independence severed allegiance to the crown, nevertheless shouldered a musket. The loyalists were overawed or driven out, and their writings belong thereafter to the countries of their exile. Newspapers were few, paper was scarce, mails were infrequent and precarious, schools and colleges were interrupted or suspended altogether.