Come Friday, Americans will celebrate the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. This was the day in 1776, 56 members of the Second Continental Congress ratified — with their signatures and blood — a document that proclaimed America’s 13 colonies absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown and that shattered any connection between the colonies and the British monarchy and mother country.
Americans know that much. And we know that the primary author of this epochal declaration was one of the most renowned and brilliant among the Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson, the great Virginian.
What many Americans do not know is how Jefferson came to be that one man. That one among many chosen to articulate the emotions and ideas that were propelling the American Revolution.
Jefferson himself said his purpose was “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we were compelled to take … It was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”
Influence of Jefferson’s father
It started with a book. Jefferson was 14. He inherited from his father, Peter, in the late 1750s Paul de Rapin-Thoyras’ history of England.
This and other histories chronicled the struggles of England in the 1600s. It was a century of the English citizenry fighting for the rights of individuals against the encroachments of absolutist monarchs. Educated Americans of British descent knew this history and didn’t want it to repeat in the colonies.
Jefferson’s father in fact, was a staunch Whig, influencing his son’s youth with democratic ideas, favoring the Parliament and people over the king. As a teen, Jefferson even embraced the theory that England was initially populated by freedom-loving Saxons and that Americans were the heirs of the Saxon tradition of individual freedom.
With this upbringing, by age 21, Jefferson was well aware of the increasing reach of the British government into Americans’ lives. And this was crystallized for him in May 1765, when Jefferson stood in the doorway of the Virginia House of Burgesses and witnessed the oratory of the man who would later become famous for the phrase “Give me liberty or give me death” — Patrick Henry.
Jefferson watched Henry speak against the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, arguing that to give the British Parliament any control over Virginia or any colony would “destroy AMERICAN FREEDOM (sic).”
Henry’s eloquence swept Jefferson away. “He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote,” Jefferson said. From that point on, Jefferson felt his political passions on constant burn.
On Dec. 16, 1768, at age 25, Jefferson was elected to represent Albemarle County in the Viriginia House of Burgesses. This put him right where he wanted to be: in the thicket of the growing conflicts between the colonists and the British Parliament.
“Taxes, the presence of British troops, trade regulations, the disposition of western lands and relations with Indian tribes, among other matters, were all seen as grasps for power by London, power that Jefferson and others believed rightly belonged to them,” wrote Meacham in “Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power.”
Jefferson reaches national stage
Two incidents soon after propelled Jefferson to prominence in Virginia and beyond.
On May 19, 1774, newspapers announced the British Parliament had adopted the Boston Port Act, a law that closed the port of Boston until participants in the Boston Tea Party paid for the losses incurred by the East India Co.
Infuriated, Jefferson, Patrick Henry and a half-dozen others decided to take a public stand in defense of the citizens of Massachusetts. Their response? They became community organizers.
With the intent, as Jefferson wrote, “of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen,” Jefferson and his colleagues promoted a Day of Fasting and Prayer in Virginia churches. It was to ask Virginians to pray for deliverance from “the evils of civil war.” The turnout and effects were powerful — “like a shock of electricity arousing every man,” Jefferson wrote.
In the wake of the Day of Fasting and Prayer, the “freeholders” of Albemarle County elected Jefferson to represent them at a special General Assembly meeting in Williamsburg. With him, Jefferson carried a resolution from his county expressing “the common rights of mankind” — a precursor of what was to come.
Jefferson’s prominence rose even more after he composed instructions for Virginia’s delegates to an upcoming meeting of the Continental Congress. It was September 1774. Jefferson entitled the 6,700-word document “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.”
Jefferson’s passions for liberty were on fire. Reminding King George III, Jefferson wrote: “Our ancestors, before their emigration to America were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe … Open your breast, sire, to liberal and expanded thought … No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another, but deal out to all equal and impartial right … The God who gave us life gave liberty at the same time …”
Jefferson’s “Summary View” trembled through the colonies, as well as across the Atlantic to London. George Washington paid “3s 9d” for several copies of what he called “Mr. Jefferson’s Bill of Rights.”
“Summary View” thrust Jefferson on the national stage. Soon after, he was elected to the Second Continental Congress. He was 31.
What Adams saw in Jefferson
The revolution consumed him. Over the next 15 months, he shuttled between Philadelphia and Monticello. He and John Adams bonded. Adams was volatile in tongue and temper; Jefferson the opposite.
Keeping his emotions in check produced side effects. Jefferson’s stress manifested in excruciating migraines. He wrestled with the pain in March 1776 on the death of his mother.
Two months later, still recovering, he left Monticello for Philadelphia. He moved into quarters in the three-story home of a bricklayer, Jacob Graff Jr.
The intense debates over independence had begun. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia formally moved that the United Colonies absolve and dissolve any and all allegiance to the crown.
Unable to persuade the middle states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina to sign on, the Congress agreed to postpone a vote for three weeks. Jefferson and Adams were assigned to a committee to draft a formal declaration of independence. Adams persuaded Jefferson to write it (see box).
Later, Adams explained: “… Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit and decisive upon committees and in conversation — not even Samuel Adams was more so — that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others.”
Jefferson wrote at a small wooden desk he designed. His words flowed naturally and with conviction. In Jefferson’s vision, the only legitimate form of government was self-government. He declared the Spirit of America.
‘YOU WRITE IT’; ‘NO, YOU WRITE IT’
Once the Continental Congress decided in the beginning of the second week of June 1776 that it would vote in three weeks on whether to declare independence from Great Britain, one of the decisions its leaders faced was who should write the declaration. They voted.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams finished one and two in the voting. A committee appointed them to write it.
So the two discussed it. Adams recalled the conversation going like this:
Jefferson suggested first that Adams write the declaration.
“I will not,” Adams said.
“You should do it,” Jefferson said.
“Why will you not? You ought to do it.”
“I will not.”
“What can be your reasons?”
“Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write 10 times better than I can.”
“Well, if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.”
“Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”
Source: “Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power,” by Jon Meacham, 2012