Words that Changed the World

March 8, 2011 at 1:55 pm Leave a comment

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I believe these words, penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, more than any other words, have changed the course of human history.

Imperfect as our democracy is,  it was and is founded on these words. I can think of no other words that have been as inspiring, or that have brought about greater change in the world.  (“Love your neighbor as yourself” might have been even more earth-shattering had the words been heeded and followed. But guess what, except in the case of a handful of truly saintly people, they never were, and have not been to this day!)

But the words of Jefferson, perhaps because they were offered in a political, not a religious context, have had a phenomenal effect on the course of not only U.S. history, but the history of the world.

They have inspired not only many of the greatest speeches in our country’s history–some of them also very powerful in inspiring forward movement–but have inspired people around the world to take the words “all men are created equal” literally, to heart, and into action.

I don’t believe for a minute that even Thomas Jefferson, brilliant as he was, could have seen what momentous changes these words would eventually bring about. His world was too different from ours; I don’t think anyone’s imagination could have stretched that far in that time.

Whenever the question occurs, “Is there really power in the pen?” these are the words that come to my mind.

For they are the words that inspired a fundamental change in the course of human history–a world in which the prerogatives granted by privilege and class would no longer be seen as inevitable. Where people would actually believe that all men are created equal, and that there are certain rights we all deserve to have.

We haven’t gotten to the fulfillment of this promise yet. We’re not even close. But we are clearly heading in that direction, and I think we owe a lot to Jefferson, to his powerful vision of equality, and to the promise offered in his words, a promise that is still unfolding.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.


Entry filed under: Why Words Matter. Tags: , , , , , .

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