A Matter of Principle: The Influence of America’s Declaration of Independence on Post-Declaration Literature

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Steven Olsen-Smith and Scott Yenor


This study explores the ways in which selected principles contained within America’s Declaration of Independence are addressed in works of post-Declaration literature. The examined works are from the nineteenth-century. It was during this time that America’s writers were attempting to establish a uniquely American literature, and the Declaration of Independence, with its rhetoric of equality and unalienable rights, provided a fertile ground for that effort. Drawing upon scholarship from the document itself, I discuss the Declaration and provide a brief explication of the principles contained within the preamble. I then compare and contrast how those same principles are incorporated and interpreted in passages from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, The American Scholar; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The House of Seven Gables; and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Resistance to Civil Government. The purpose of the study is to demonstrate how important political ideas and values become infused into public consciousness and rooted into cultural identities by way of artistic medium. The results indicate a significant influence of the political ideas embodied within the Declaration upon the selected works.

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