Updated May 2023
It’s just about time for us as Americans to break out the burgers and pasta salads in celebration of Independence Day (and we’re talking about the 1776 Independence Day, not the one with Will Smith).
So today let’s refresh our memories with a look at how American writers changed the shape of our government and politics before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. If our founders hadn’t demonstrated a lot of dexterity with their quills, there’s no telling how different the country might look today.
Our Founding Fathers And Mothers: Creative Writers At Heart?
The Essayist: Thomas Jefferson. Although known for the Declaration of Independence, this President’s conversational but poetic essay about the war between head and heart is the stuff of pure creative writing. Technically, the work is a letter sent to Jefferson’s lady friend Maria Cosway, though it is often anthologized among American essays. Who wins the day? You’ll have to read the essay to find out.
The Pamphleteer: Thomas Paine. Though sometimes cited by his detractors as a specialist in propaganda, there’s no arguing that Thomas Paine’s little book Common Sense ignited the people of the colonies to resist their government. Paine’s ideas are presented as highly logical and objective, but they’re carried by passionate, evocative prose that resonates with readers from all walks of life. Click here for quotations from Common Sense.
The Poet: Phillis Wheatley. Sold into slavery in Africa at age seven, Wheatley went on to become a well-regarded poet of her time, catching the attention of many of the day’s most famous thinkers—including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine. As a child, she was sold to the Wheatley family of Boston and given a spectacular education, but she was not emancipated until the head of the Wheatley family passed away. When Phillis passed in 1784, she left as a legacy her life’s work of political and philosophical poems.
The Letter Writer: Abigail Adams. When her husband John Adams was in a tight pinch or a fit of fury (it was always one or the other), Abigail Adams came to the rescue as the voice of reason. As First Lady, she was so quick to share her opinion and was so active that peers sometimes referred to her as “Mrs. President.” Her letters to her husband are insightful, finely wrought, and incisive testaments to the upheavals of the times; her letters have become important records and have been regarded as works of literature in and of themselves.
The Memoirist: Benjamin Franklin. According to some, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was one of the first American books to be considered “worthy literature” by Europeans (which may not come as a huge surprise, since Franklin was a favorite diplomat in France). Franklin’s memoir is funny, clever, and engaging even to modern readers. And it also has a definite “creative nonfiction” sensibility, though the terminology wouldn’t have been used during his day.
Creative Writers And Politics: Put Your Pen To Good Use
In some ways America was a country born on paper; it existed as an idea before it was attempted. And it was the power of the founders’ pens that made the vague notion of “America” feel like a real, achievable goal. Had these founders lacked strong writing skills, imagination, and persuasiveness, the Revolution may have looked much different. It was, in many ways, the writing that started it all.