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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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Thomas Jefferson - Teaching Tips

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  • Students tend to view the Declaration of Independence as a kind of sacred document, forgetting that it was argued over and revised by the Second Continental Congress. Ask your class to examine the editorial changes to Jefferson's original draft indicated by the underlining and marginal notations featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. How did the Congress change Jefferson's original words? In what places did they tone down his language? Where did they make it stronger? In particular, you might focus on the removal of the passage condemning slavery (where Jefferson advances the unconvincing argument that the King set up the institution of slavery in America against the will of the white colonists) and the changes to Jefferson's indictment of "our British brethren."

  • Some background on Jefferson's vexed relationship with the question of slavery could enliven class discussion: Now that DNA tests have proven that he had children with his slave Sally Hemings, and that he held those children in slavery for most of his life, the discrepancy between Jefferson's belief that "all men are created equal" and the reality of his life as a plantation owner seems even more problematic. You should make it clear to students that Jefferson was by no means untroubled by the question of slavery--he sponsored unsuccessful political action to weaken or end slavery on several occasions and he devised elaborate architectural tricks at Monticello to disguise the slave labor that was foundational to its operations. But despite his discomfort with slavery, he never brought himself to free his slaves, nor did he free them after his death.

  • Ask one of your students to read aloud the speech that Jefferson attributes to the Native American chief Logan in Query VI of Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson (himself a notoriously poor speaker) once claimed that within the "whole orations of Demosthenes and Cicero and indeed in all of European oratory" one could not "produce a single passage superior to the speech of Logan." Ask students what kind of response they had when they listened to the speech. Why might Jefferson have chosen this as a model of oratory? What values does the speech uphold? What image of Native American culture does it provide? You might give students a summary of historian Hayden White's argument that the construction of the "Noble Savage" in America had more to do with debunking the idea of the superiority of hereditary aristocracies than with elevating "savages." Ask your students whether they think this theory illuminates Jefferson's discussion of Logan and whether it fits in with the rest of Jefferson's ideology.

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