In 1769, at the age of twenty-six, Thomas Jefferson was elected to the colonial Virginia legislature. He proposed but failed to get a bill passed to make it easier for owners to emancipate their slaves. Allied with other young, radical legislators, Jefferson opposed Britain’s new imperial policy that attempted to wield greater control over the colonies. The burgesses called for the appointment of committees of correspondence in all of the colonies to coordinate sentiment and activities, and they also called for the appointment of delegates to attend a Continental Congress. Jefferson prepared a petition to the king for Virginia’s delegates to Congress, but on the way to take his seat, he was taken ill with dysentery and was unable to attend. He sent copies of his draft petition forward, but the burgesses rejected it as too radical. Most Americans who opposed British policies argued that Parliament could tax Americans if the tax was primarily aimed at regulating commerce. These “external taxes” were constitutional, but “internal taxes” aimed primarily at raising revenue were blatantly unconstitutional. Jefferson went much further, maintaining that Great Britain and the American colonies were totally separate from each other except in loyalty to the same king. Parliament, therefore, had no authority whatsoever to legislate for the colonies, totally opposite of Parliament’s Declaratory Act (1766), which asserted Parliament’s authority “to bind Americans in all cases whatsoever.”
According to Jefferson, his arguments were “read generally by the members, approved by many, but thought too bold for the present state of things.”1 Several friends, however, arranged to have Jefferson’s petition printed as a pamphlet under the title A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The pamphlet was distributed broadly in America and in Britain, and, according to Jefferson, “procured me the honor of having my name inserted in a long list” of traitors in a bill of attainder that guaranteed his execution.
Jefferson’s Summary View argued that “History has informed us that bodies of men, as well as individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny.” Parliament and the king’s ministers had crossed the line. Since 1763 they had passed a series of acts that threatened American liberty and property. Jefferson declared these acts void, because “the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.” Under previous British rulers, American rights had been endangered only sporadically. Now, however, a rapid succession of dangerous measures had emanated from London.
Scarcely have our minds been able to emerge from the astonishment into which one stroke of parliamentary thunder has involved us, before another more heavy, and more alarming, is fallen on us. Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.
Jefferson urged King George to mediate with Parliament “to recommend . . . the total revocation of these acts, which, however nugatory they be, may yet prove the cause of further discontents and jealousies among us.” Americans, like any free people, claim “their rights, as deserved from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. Let those flatter who fear: it is not an American art.” Jefferson told George III “that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people. Open your breast, sire, to liberal and expanded thought. Let not the name of George the third be a blot in the pages of history.” America, Jefferson stated, did not wish to separate from Britain. But Jefferson warned the king, “There are extraordinary situations which require extraordinary interposition. An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular.” Jefferson concluded:
The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. This, sire, is our last, our determined resolution; and that you will be pleased to interpose with that efficacy which your earnest endeavours may ensure to procure redress of these our great grievances, to quiet the minds of your subjects in British America, against any apprehensions of future encroachment, to establish fraternal love and harmony throughout the whole empire, and that these may continue to the latest ages of time, is the fervent prayer of all British America!
In March 1775 the Virginia provincial convention added Jefferson to its delegation to the Second Continental Congress. Before Congress assembled, the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Congress drafted petitions to Britain seeking reconciliation and justifying why Americans had taken up arms. Jefferson prepared a draft declaration explaining America’s position, but it was too strong for many of the delegates. John Dickinson of Delaware wrote the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms in July 1775. Unable to improve upon Jefferson’s closing four paragraphs, Dickinson incorporated them into his draft, which Congress accepted. The rhetoric of these paragraphs was characteristically Jefferson’s—powerful, eloquent, stirring. It surely angered the king and probably made reconciliation impossible.
The force and beauty of Jefferson’s closing paragraphs still have remarkable impact: “We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. . . . Honor, justice, and humanity forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.”
“Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.” He thanked God for not permitting the crisis of British domination to occur “until we were grown up to our present strength” and had gained needed experience fighting a previous war.
Americans, Jefferson wrote, did not seek independence from Britain. “Necessity has not yet driven us into that desperate measure, or induced us to excite any other nation to war against” Britain. But Americans were determined to protect their rights and their property with an “unabating firmness and perseverance, . . . being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.”
American petitions, resolutions, and declarations never swayed Parliament, the ministry, or King George. Quite the contrary. The King and Parliament declared the colonists in a state of rebellion. Abandoning efforts at reconciliation, the British attacked with overwhelming military power in an attempt to intimidate Americans into submission. Most Americans, too, became convinced that reconciliation was impossible. The necessity for independence absent in July 1775 appeared full blown a year later, but not all of the delegates in Congress were in agreement when Virginia moved on June 7, 1776, that the “United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” It was decided, therefore, to postpone a vote on independence for almost four weeks. Congress appointed committees to seek foreign assistance and alliances, to draft articles of union, and to draft a declaration of independence. The declaration committee consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson. The committee chose the thirty-three-year-old Virginian to draft the Declaration.
It is unclear how the committee selected Jefferson to draft the Declaration, how he wrote it, and how it was eventually presented to Congress. A quarter century later Adams remembered that
Mr. Jefferson had been now about a Year a Member of Congress, but had attended his Duty in the House but a very small part of the time and when there had never spoken in public: and during the whole Time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together. . . . It will naturally be inquired, how it happened that he was appointed on a Committee of such importance. There were more reasons than one. Mr. Jefferson had the Reputation of a masterly Pen. He had been chosen a Delegate in Virginia, in consequence of a very handsome public Paper, which he had written for the House of Burgesses, which had given him the Character of a fine Writer. Another reason was that Mr. Richard Henry Lee was not beloved by the most of his Colleagues from Virginia and Mr. Jefferson was set up to rival and supplant him. This could be done only by the Pen, for Mr. Jefferson could stand no competition with him or any one else in Elocution and public debate. . . . The Committee had several meetings, in which were proposed the Articles of which the Declaration was to consist, and minutes made of them. The Committee then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me, to draw them up in form, and cloath them in a proper Dress. The Sub Committee met, and considered the Minutes, making such Observations on them as then occurred; when Mr. Jefferson desired me to take them to my Lodgings and make the Draft. This I declined and gave several reasons for declining. 1. That he was a Virginian and I a Massachusettsian. 2. that he was a southern Man and I a northern one. 3. That I had been so obnoxious for my early and constant Zeal in promoting the Measure, that any draft of mine, would undergo a more severe Scrutiny and Criticism in Congress, than one of his composition. 4thly and lastly and that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great Opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own. I therefore insisted that no hesitation should be made on his part. He accordingly took the Minutes and in a day or two produced to me his Draft. Whether I made or suggested any corrections I remember not. The Report was made to the Committee of five, by them examined, but whether altered or corrected in any thing I cannot recollect. But in substance at least it was reported to Congress where, after a severe Criticism, and striking out several of the most oratorical Paragraphs it was adopted on the fourth of July 1776, and published to the World.2
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in the seclusion of his parlor in his small second-floor apartment in a new three-story brick building on Market Street between Seventh and Eighth streets in Philadelphia. One can only imagine what his thoughts were as he stared down at a blank sheet of paper upon his new “writing-box.”3 Charged with writing a document to justify America’s attempt to become an independent nation, the Declaration should inspire the American people and obtain support from abroad—within Britain as well as among Britain’s enemies. In another sense, Jefferson wanted to address a much broader audience—all of posterity—both those who would seek to live their lives in liberty as well as those who would seek to dominate over others. Years later, only about a year before his death, Jefferson explained what the Declaration of Independence was supposed to do.
When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but 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 are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.4
The genius of Thomas Jefferson is that he infused the Declaration with “the proper tone and spirit called for.” Jefferson took a huge body of political literature—22,000 pamphlets published in Britain in the seventeenth century and several thousand more published during the eighteenth in Britain and America—and condensed it into five sentences, a total of 202 words: the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. These five sentences constitute arguably what is the greatest statement in political literature.
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,—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it; and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Jefferson’s truth may be self-evident, but “the pursuit of Happiness” has baffled many. The simplest explanation is that this phrase is a euphemistic synonym for “property,” similar to John Locke’s “life, liberty, and estate.” Jefferson, however, meant far more than the right to buy, possess, and dispose of property. He wanted a government that, in the words of John Adams, “communicates ease, comfort, [and] security”5—a government that would provide protection from foreign invasion, from assault by criminals (and attack by Indians in America), and from oppressive government rule and taxation. Government, according to Jefferson, should provide an efficient, well-run economic environment as well as a society where contrary religious and political opinions could exist in harmony—where the majority ruled but with due deference to the rights of the minority. After playing its role in leveling the field, government would step aside and interfere no more. In his first inaugural address as president in March 1801, Jefferson himself explained the role of government in the pursuit of happiness: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
- Autobiography (1821), Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York, 1984), 10.
- John Adams Autobiography (1802), L. H. Butterfield et al., eds., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (4 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1962), III, 335–37.
- Jefferson writing to his granddaughter described his writing box: “It was made from a drawing of my own, by Ben. Randall, a cabinet maker in whose house I took my first lodgings on my arrival in Philadelphia in May 1776. And I have used it ever since. It claims no merit of particular beauty. It is plain, neat, convenient, and, taking no more room on the writing table than a moderate 4to. Volume, it yet displays itself sufficiently for any writing.” (To Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Monticello, November 14, 1825, Holmes, Jefferson Chronology, 306.)
- To Henry Lee, Monticello, May 8, 1825, Jefferson: Writings, 1501.
- Adams, Thoughts on Government . . . 1776, Adams Papers, IV, 86.