Essay on The Common Future of Jefferson and Emerson

Submitted By will2107
Words: 2076
Pages: 9

Though written at years apart from one another, in unique styles, and for different reasons, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar (1837) are similar in an important respect. Jefferson’s manuscript covers a wide range of topics, including factual information about the state of Virginia, as well as several of his philosophies on then-present issues in America and the world. Emerson’s work was first introduced as a speech to the Phi Beta Kappa society at Harvard University. Within it, Emerson outlines his vision for a distinct American culture and breed of scholar, which includes inspiration from nature and literary work, as well as an active lifestyle. As a speech, Emerson’s Scholar is very direct and forward in its meaning. Jefferson’s Notes, however, express themes similar to those of Emerson in a more indirect fashion, as voicing these opinions was not the explicit purpose of its writing. In spite of these differences, these works are bonded by the shared image each projects for America. Both portray a very optimistic future for the country, an idea which is inferred through the presence of two main characteristics common to each work. Foremost, each envisions a new American identity. Both argue that America has absorbed the affinities of Europe for too long, and assert the nation must form its own image. In addition, Jefferson and Emerson both project a happy future for the country, a fate that is at least partially credited to the common people of America. Each praises the moral tenets of the common people, though they believe these values to be a credit in different ways. Nevertheless, these attributes bridge the works of these two authors.
As with almost every work of literature, the historical context into which these works fall helps to elucidate their meanings. At the time Jefferson wrote, America was still a fledgling nation that was fighting its war for independence, possessing little in the way of its own distinct culture or, seemingly, merit. A prevailing attitude in Europe at the time was that the New World was, on essentially all accounts, inferior to the Old, a relevant issue for both authors. Addressing the issue in his time, Jefferson describes that “…such our preference for foreign manufacturers, that be it wise or unwise, our people will certainly return as soon as they can, to raising raw materials, and exchanging them for finer manufactures than they are able to execute themselves” (164). As he makes clear in this passage, Americans were highly attached to European customs of dress, a characteristic demonstrative of the fact that American culture at the time mirrored that of Europe and had yet to distinguish itself. Much to the chagrin of Emerson, Jefferson’s description was still applicable even five decades later.
Thus, it is with this background of a sense of derision from Europe and the lack of a truly distinct culture that both Jefferson and Emerson both argue for a unique American identity. This goal is shared by both authors, though they demonstrate so in highly contrasting ways in their writing. Jefferson approaches the task overtly, asserting favorable descriptions of the young United States. Examples can be found throughout his manuscript. In describing the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jefferson narrates that they “…are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America” (20). This last line is particularly telling of Jefferson’s motivation. Though he does not directly compare Europe and America, it is clear that Jefferson is taking a stand against the perception of the country as a bland and unimpressive area. In this passage, Jefferson claims that the Blue Ridge range could be the tallest mountains in all of North America. Undoubtedly, this would be a remarkable characteristic for the United States to possess, and would certainly lend credit to his argument