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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On the Declaration of Independence
By Moses Coit Tyler (1835–1900)
 
From ‘The Literary History of the American Revolution’

IT is proper for us to remember that what we call criticism is not the only valid test of the genuineness and worth of any piece of writing of great practical interest to mankind: there is also the test of actual use and service in the world, in direct contact with the common-sense and the moral sense of large masses of men, under various conditions, and for a long period. Probably no writing which is not essentially sound and true has ever survived this test.  1
  Neither from this test has the great Declaration any need to shrink. Probably no public paper ever more perfectly satisfied the immediate purposes for which it was set forth. From one end of the country to the other, and as fast as it could be spread among the people, it was greeted in public and in private with every demonstration of approval and delight. To a marvelous degree it quickened the friends of the Revolution for their great task. “This Declaration,” wrote one of its signers but a few days after it had been proclaimed, “has had a glorious effect,—has made these colonies all alive.” “With the Independency of the American States,” said another political leader a few weeks later, “a new era in politics has commenced. Every consideration respecting the propriety or impropriety of a separation from Britain is now entirely out of the question…. Our future happiness or misery, therefore, as a people, will depend entirely upon ourselves.” 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.”  2
  Moreover, during the century and a quarter since the close of the Revolution, the influence of this State paper on the political character and the political conduct of the American people has been great beyond all calculation. For example, after we had achieved our own national deliverance, and had advanced into that enormous and somewhat corrupting material prosperity which followed the adoption of the Constitution, the development of the cotton interest, and the expansion of the republic into a transcontinental power, we fell, as is now most apparent, under an appalling national temptation,—the temptation to forget, or to repudiate, or to refuse to apply to the case of our human brethren in bondage, the very principles which we ourselves had once proclaimed as the basis of every rightful government, and as the ultimate source of our own claim to an untrammeled national life. The prodigious service rendered to us in this awful moral emergency by the Declaration of Independence was, that its public repetition at least once every year in the hearing of vast throngs of the American people, in every portion of the republic, kept constantly before our minds, in a form of almost religious sanctity, those few great ideas as to the dignity of human nature, and the sacredness of personality, and the indestructible rights of man as mere man, with which we had so gloriously identified the beginnings of our national existence, and upon which we had proceeded to erect all our political institutions both for the nation and for the States. It did, indeed, at last become very hard for us to listen each year to the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, and still to remain the owners and users and catchers of slaves; still harder, to accept the doctrine that the righteousness and prosperity of slavery was to be taken as the dominant policy of the nation. The logic of Calhoun was as flawless as usual, when he concluded that the chief obstruction in the way of his system was the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Had it not been for the inviolable sacredness given by it to those sweeping aphorisms about the natural rights of man, it may be doubted whether, under the vast practical inducements involved, Calhoun might not have succeeded in winning over an immense majority of the American people to the support of his compact and plausible scheme for making slavery the basis of the republic. It was the preamble of the Declaration of Independence which elected Lincoln, which sent forth the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave victory to Grant, which ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.  3
  Moreover, we cannot doubt that the permanent effects of the great Declaration on the political and even the ethical ideals of the American people are wider and deeper than can be measured by our experience in grappling with any single political problem; for they touch all the spiritual springs of American national character, and they create, for us and for all human beings, a new standard of political justice and a new principle in the science of government.
          “Much ridicule, a little of it not altogether undeserved,” says a brilliant English scholar of our time, who is also nobly distinguished in the sphere of English statesmanship, “has been thrown upon the opening clause of the Declaration of Independence, which asserts the inherent natural right of man to enjoy life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. Yet there is an implied corollary in this, which enjoins the highest morality that in our present state we are able to think of as possible. If happiness is the right of our neighbor, then not to hinder him but to help him in its pursuit must plainly be our duty. If all men have a claim, then each man is under an obligation. The corollary thus involved is the corner-stone of morality. It was an act of good augury thus to inscribe happiness, as entering at once into the right of all and into the duty of all, in the very head and front of the new charter, as the base of a national existence and the first principle of a national government. The omen has not been falsified. The Americans have been true to their first doctrine. They have never swerved aside to set up caste and privilege, to lay down the doctrine that one man’s happiness ought to be an object of greater solicitude to society than any other man’s, or that one order should be encouraged to seek its prosperity through the depression of any other order. Their example proved infectious. The assertion in the New World that men have a right to happiness, and an obligation to promote the happiness of one another, struck a spark in the Old World. Political construction in America immediately preceded the last violent stage of demolition in Europe.”
  4
  “We shall not here attempt to delineate the influence of this State paper upon mankind in general. Of course the emergence of the American Republic as an imposing world-power is a phenomenon which has now for many years attracted the attention of the human race. Surely no slight effect must have resulted from the fact that among all civilized peoples, the one American document best known is the Declaration of Independence; and that thus the spectacle of so vast and beneficent a political success has been everywhere associated with the assertion of the natural rights of man. “The doctrines it contained,” says Buckle, “were not merely welcomed by a majority of the French nation, but even the government itself was unable to withstand the general feeling.” “Its effect in hastening the approach of the French Revolution … was indeed most remarkable.” Elsewhere also in many lands, among many peoples, it has been appealed to again and again as an inspiration for political courage, as a model for political conduct; and if, as the brilliant English historian just cited has affirmed, “that noble Declaration … ought to be hung up in the nursery of every king, and blazoned on the porch of every royal palace,” it is because it has become the classic statement of political truths which must at last abolish kings altogether, or else teach them to identify their existence with the dignity and happiness of human nature.  5
  It would be unfitting, in a work like the present, to treat of the Declaration of Independence without making more than an incidental reference to its purely literary character.  6
  Very likely most writings—even most writings of genuine and high quality—have had the misfortune of being read too little. There is, however, a misfortune—perhaps a greater misfortune—which has overtaken some literary compositions, and these not necessarily the noblest and the best: the misfortune of being read too much. At any rate, the writer of a piece of literature which has been neglected, need not be refused the consolation he may get from reflecting that he is at least not the writer of a piece of literature which has become hackneyed. Just this is the sort of calamity which seems to have befallen the Declaration of Independence. Is it, indeed, possible for us Americans, near the close of the nineteenth century, to be entirely just to the literary quality of this most monumental document—this much belauded, much bespouted, much beflouted document?—since in order to be so, we need to rid ourselves if we can of the obstreperous memories of a lifetime of Independence Days, and to unlink and disperse the associations which have somehow confounded Jefferson’s masterpiece with the rattle of firecrackers, with the flash and the splutter of burning tar-barrels, and with that unreserved, that gyratory and perspiratory eloquence, now for more than a hundred years consecrated to the return of our fateful Fourth of July.  7
  Had the Declaration of Independence been what many a revolutionary State paper is,—a clumsy, verbose, and vaporing production,—not even the robust literary taste and the all-forgiving patriotism of the American people could have endured the weariness, the nausea, of hearing its repetition in ten thousand different places, at least once every year for so long a period. Nothing which has not supreme literary merit has ever triumphantly endured such an ordeal, or ever been subjected to it. No man can adequately explain the persistent fascination which this State paper has had, and which it still has, for the American people, or its undiminished power over them, without taking into account its extraordinary literary merits: its possession of the witchery of true substance wedded to perfect form; its massiveness and incisiveness of thought; its art in the marshaling of the topics with which it deals; its symmetry, its energy, the definiteness and limpidity of its statements; its exquisite diction,—at once terse, musical, and electrical; and as an essential part of this literary outfit, many of those spiritual notes which can attract and enthrall our hearts,—veneration for God, veneration for man, veneration for principle, respect for public opinion, moral earnestness, moral courage, optimism, a stately and noble pathos,—finally, self-sacrificing devotion to a cause so great as to be herein identified with the happiness, not of one people only, or of one race only, but of human nature itself.  8
  Upon the whole, this is the most commanding and the most pathetic utterance, in any age, in any language, of national grievances and of national purposes; having a Demosthenic momentum of thought, and a fervor of emotional appeal such as Tyrtæus might have put into his war-songs. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence is a kind of war-song: it is a stately and a passionate chant of human freedom; it is a prose lyric of civil and military heroism. We may be altogether sure that no genuine development of literary taste among the American people in any period of our future history can result in serious misfortune to this particular specimen of American literature.  9
 
 
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