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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence

In the months after the Intolerable Acts, events began to move quickly. The First Continental Congress met in September 1774, and accomplished two things: it passed a boycott of British goods and called for a Second Continental Congress to meet the next May. Britain, the colonies' major trading partner, increased its military presence in response. The soldiers and the restless colonists came into increasing tension. On 19 April 1775, the tension snapped with a single shot heard around the world, as the battles of Lexington and Concord plunged the colonies into the Revolutionary War.

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1775, less than a month after the first bloodshed. When the Virginia delegation arrived, it caused quite a stir. Not only was it the most opulent delegation (Virginia's planter elites were the wealthiest of all the colonists) it was also the most famous. We're talking eighteenth-century rock stars here. George Washington, the hero of the French and Indian War and perhaps the most respected man in America, arrived in full military uniform, ready to lead the war against Britain. His co-delegate Patrick Henry was the continent's most famous orator for spearheading the fight against the Stamp Act. And the leader of the Virginia delegation, Jefferson's cousin Peyton Randolph, was so highly esteemed by colonial politicians that he had been elected president of the First Continental Congress and was immediately elected president of the Second as well.

Notably absent was Thomas Jefferson. It is notable for us anyway; at the time, no one would have expected to see him there. He still wasn't a big enough deal to be a Virginia representative, and besides, he preferred staying home. But when his cousin Randolph was called back to Virginia to become president of the House of Burgesses. Jefferson was sent in his stead. He was widely seen as Randolph's political heir; if Randolph was coming home, it made perfect sense to the other Virginia delegates that Jefferson should take his place in Congress.

Jefferson was not exactly thrilled to go. He felt like the real work of the revolution was taking place at home, in Virginia, where they were drafting a new state constitution. He hated cities, missed his wife, and did not like public speaking. Thus, Jefferson took what would be the most consequential trip of his life begrudgingly. Almost from the day he arrived, he wrote letters back to Virginia begging to be recalled.

While he waited for Virginia to send someone to replace him, Jefferson worked as Congress's draftsman. His reputation as a writer (what John Adams called his "peculiar felicity of expression") had preceded him, and so he landed most of Congress's written assignments, drafting memoranda and writing declarations. It bothered him less than the Congress' other work—at least he didn't have to speak in public, and it left him plenty of time to read. There was, then, nothing unusual when he found himself assigned to a committee charged with producing a draft for a declaration of independence; indeed, it would have been surprising if he hadn't been assigned to the job. Nothing unusual either in his writing the entire document alone: the other committee members had more important things to do, and besides, Jefferson had already basically written the thing for Congress already.4 Earlier in the year he had written A Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms, and in May and June of 1776, had been working on a draft of a new constitution for Virginia. Jefferson slammed out a draft in a couple days, ran it by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and went back to dreaming about how he was going to get out of Philadelphia.

Years later, his authorship of the Declaration of Independence would become the cornerstone of Jefferson's fame. At the time the Declaration was not such a big deal. When it was brought to the floor on the 2nd of July, Congress spent two days editing the particulars of Jefferson's indictment of George III. The preamble, the most famous part of the Declaration today, made it through editing mostly unchanged. Nevertheless, Jefferson felt that Congress did more harm than good with its tinkering. They struck out two claims in particular that he hated to see go. The first was a criticism of the British people for not helping the colonists fight their King. And the second was a criticism of slavery.

Jefferson's relationship to slavery was difficult to understand, even at the time. Like all wealthy Virginians, he kept slaves. And, also like most wealthy Virginians, he felt that slavery was an evil institution. It wasn't that slaves were equal to free men—Jefferson made it very clear that he believed whites were smarter and better developed than blacks—just that slavery itself was a moral evil that should be ended. The problem, as Jefferson saw it, was that there wasn't really any practical way to end slavery. Former slaves couldn't live next to their white masters; that would be nothing but an invitation to civil war. Besides, slaves were necessary for the economic structure the South had then developed. As he aged, Jefferson settled into a studied indecision on the question of slavery; he criticized it in moral terms whenever he could, but never took any action on it, and left the problem's resolution to future generations. But the young Jefferson of the Second Continental Congress was not yet quite so jaded. Congress's decision to strike his denunciation of slavery from the Declaration made him mad.

Thus when the Declaration of Independence was finally published, on the Fourth of July, 1776, Jefferson was disappointed. Luckily, its author's frustrations did little to mar its reception: the Declaration was read aloud in meeting halls and public squares across the land, and provided a model for the separate states as they organized their governments. It even made a bit of splash internationally; after the end of the Revolutionary War, the Declaration took on new life as an international legal document. When Jefferson's authorship became known, in 1784, it catapulted him to instant fame.

In the summer of 1776, though, the promise of future renown was not enough to keep Jefferson working in Philadelphia. Jefferson had wanted out, and still wanted out. In September, Virginia finally sent him a replacement, and Jefferson rushed home.

His work in Philadelphia had earned him a bit of a reputation back in Virginia, and he came back a more prominent political figure than he had left. As befit a shy draftsman, he set himself to revising the Virginia legal code, trying to bring it into line with his emerging vision of democratic society. Jefferson wanted to create a world in which all white males had the opportunity to live the classical statesman's ideal. He wanted a world of free, independent individuals. With that goal in mind, he set out to eliminate the things he felt stood in the way of making that world possible. He drafted laws to end the practice of entailment, which prevented heirs from breaking up estates and so fostered the creation of landed elites, and tried to protect freedom of thought. He even lobbied for a public education system. If we look at the logic of Jefferson's reforms, we can start to see the outlines of what would later be called his Republican political program. Jefferson's democracy would be made up of private citizens coming together to take care of business. They would need to be free citizens, as in the classical ideal—free to support themselves, and free to think. And since they were going to come together to make political decisions, they would need to be educated enough to make those decisions well.

It was an interesting idea. But as Jefferson was about to learn, to become a viable political vision, it was going to need to some work.

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