We Hold These Truths ...
When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in May 1775, the revolution against Great Britain was well underway. The outbreak of the revolution occurred less than a month earlier with the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, followed by the Battle of Bunker Hill and the evacuation of the British army from Boston by sea.
Although it had no authorization from the thirteen colonial governments to do so, the Second Congress began functioning as a national government – appointing generals, sending representatives to European governments, signing treaties, borrowing money, and issuing paper currency (called “Continentals”) – all with the primary focus of managing the war effort.
Initially, the war was not a war of independence; it was a rejection of the authority of Parliament to rule the Colonies without Colonial representation. But as the Second Congress labored on into 1776, it became apparent that the recalcitrance of the advisors to the Crown and Parliament itself made any reasonable accommodation impossible and made independence inevitable. A formal declaration of that independence would be necessary to declare to the world the right and the reasons for Colonial independence; otherwise no world nation would get involved in a family squabble between the Crown and a family member.
The Virginia delegation to the Second Congress included Peyton Randolph, the cousin of Thomas Jefferson. When Randolph was called home to become the President of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Virginia’s government, much to the chagrin of Jefferson, sent him to replace his cousin. Compared to other delegates, Jefferson was relatively young at 33 years, hated cities and public speaking, missed his wife and plantation, and almost from the day he arrived in Philadelphia, began writing the Virginia officials asking to be recalled.
But his reputation for science, reading, and literary composition had preceded him. When the Second Congress decided on June 11 that a formal declaration was needed to proclaim Colonial independence, it delegated the task to a “Committee of Five” consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, the delegate from New York, and Roger Sherman, the delegate from Connecticut. There are no minutes from this committee, but it is puzzling how its youngest member was chosen to write the draft of the declaration. Franklin was not chosen because he had gone home to deal with a severe attack of gout that caused his absence at most of the Committee’s meetings. In letters written decades later, Adams explained that he and Jefferson were therefore assigned the task of writing a draft and Adams, aged 41, deferred to his younger partner after refusing Jefferson’s deference to him. Adams’ letter says he gave Jefferson three 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 ten times better than I can.”
For the next seventeen days, Jefferson toiled over the document which was written on a mahogany traveling desk that he had commissioned Benjamin Randolph, a noted Philadelphian cabinet maker, to make for him a year earlier. After his presidency ended, the desk was lost when a wagon carrying the Jefferson personal effects overturned crossing a river en route to Monticello.
When Jefferson had his draft, he showed it to Franklin and Adams who made revisions (which can be seen today in their handwriting) along with revisions in Jefferson’s handwriting which may have come from conversations with Franklin, Adams, or the other committee members. From these revisions, Jefferson wrote a “fair copy” which was titled “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.” This was presented to the 56 delegates of the Second Congress on June 28.
While Jefferson’s document would become one of the two most important documents of colonial times – the other being the Constitution – it was not so at the time it was written. To Jefferson and the other delegates it was simply one of the many bureaucratic papers that were written during those early days when the delegates were making things up as they went along in their process of becoming a republic. Ignominiously, the document was tabled (literally as can be seen in John Trumbull’s famous painting) while the Congress took up more pressing matters.
One of those matters was a Resolution of Independence that the Virginia Convention had instructed its delegate, Richard Henry Lee, to put before the Philadelphia Congress back in May:
Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Some delegates had not been authorized by their state conventions to vote for independence and thought it was premature to act on Lee’s resolution. Now, on July 1, the delegates were prepared to debate and vote. However, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, the youngest delegate at age 26, asked that the vote be delayed a day so that unanimity might be sought. On July 2 the vote was taken and the resolution passed with twelve affirmations and one abstention, that of New York, whose delegation had not yet received permission to vote for the resolution.
John Adams, writing to his wife on July 3, predicted that the date of July 2 would become an American holiday because of the passage of Lee’s resolution, thinking that the date of the vote on the resolution, not the vote on the declaration and announcement, would become “Independence Day.”
For the next two days, the delegates reworded Jefferson’s text and deleted nearly one-fourth of it, which Jefferson absorbed in silent agony. As Pauline Maier writes in her excellent book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, “[Jefferson] had forgotten, as has posterity that a draftsman is not an author …” Nevertheless, Jefferson had produced a masterpiece, without benefit of books, and strictly from the recollection of his well-read mind. His ideas as expressed in the Declaration have been the subject of much scholarship and books. My personal favorite is Garry Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Franklin had rejoined the delegates after his attack of gout, and was sitting near Jefferson during this painful process. “[Franklin] perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations,” Jefferson recalled years later, and in an effort to give Jefferson comfort while the editing and amputations were going on, Franklin told him a story of a hatter who was about to open a shop. The hatter had a sign made to advertise his business which said, “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money” followed by an image of a hat. Before hanging his sign, Franklin continued, he asked the opinion of several friends. One recommended that the word “hatter” be removed since it was redundant with “makes hats.” Another said the word “makes” should be excised because customers wouldn’t care that it was Thompson who made the hats. A third friend noted that the term “for ready money” wasn’t necessary since merchandise wasn’t sold on credit. Finally, a fourth opined that “sells hats,” could be stricken because Thompson could surely assume no one expected him to give them away. In the end, Franklin sighed, the sign simply said, “John Thompson,” with a picture of a hat, which said what was needed quite well. It seemed Jefferson’s declaration was headed to the same fate.
On July 4, the Declaration of Independence, as it is called today, was approved and sent to the print shop of John Dunlap a few blocks away where about 200 “broadside” (typeset) copies were printed during the night from the engrossed copy and distributed for public readings. The first public reading occurred in the yard of Independence Hall and readings continued throughout the thirteen colonies. A copy was sent to General Washington, who was in nearby Trenton and who had it read to his troops. After the reading concluded, a long period of silence followed, which gave the General concern. But after contemplating what they had heard, the troops broke out with loud “huzzahs.”
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became fast friends as a result of their service in the Second Continental Congress, no doubt helped by an eight-year difference in their ages. Both held positions as ministers abroad and were out of the country when the Constitutional Convention was held. The first presidential election unanimously elected George Washington. Adams became Vice President and Jefferson became Secretary of State. However, Jefferson left the Washington administration during its second term and returned to Monticello due to his ongoing disagreements with Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton over the fiscal management of the new nation.
When Washington refused to run for a third term, the election of the second president set friend against friend because both Adams and Jefferson wanted to be the second president. Adams won, and because he received the next highest total of electoral votes, Jefferson became Vice President by default.
The tumultuous election of 1800 tore their relationship asunder when Jefferson’s election as the third president denied Adams a second term. They did not speak to each other again until both reached old age and their mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a noted Philadelphia physician in colonial times, arranged a reconciliation that got them started on a most remarkable letter-writing exchange beginning in 1812.
In an historical irony, Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams died a few hours later on the same day.
Jefferson never made pretensions about being president. After his first inaugural, he stood in line at his boarding house waiting his turn to eat. After his second inaugural, he ceased delivering the State of the Union message in person. On one occasion, a visitor to the White House knocked on the front door, which Jefferson himself answered in a tattered house robe and slippers. Not surprisingly, his tombstone mentions his three proudest accomplishments, making no mention of his presidency:
Author of the
Statute of Virginia
and Father of the
University of Virginia