American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson | Chapter 7 of 17

Author: Joseph J. Ellis | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 26461 Views | Add a Review

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It is easier to reach a confident opinion about the sort of man he was in 1776 than to do so for 1793 or 1800.


IT WAS A PROVINCIAL version of the grand entrance. On June 20, 1775, Thomas Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia in an ornate carriage, called a phaeton, along with four horses and three slaves. The roughly three-hundred-mile trip from Williamsburg had taken him ten days, in part because the roads were poor and poorly marked—twice he had been forced to hire guides to recover the route—and in part because he had dawdled in Fredricksburg and Annapolis to purchase extra equipment for his entourage. As the newest and youngest member of Virginia’s delegation to the Continental Congress, he obviously intended to uphold the stylish standard of the Virginia gentry, which the Philadelphia newspapers had recently described, with a mixture of admiration and apprehension, as those “haughty sultans of the South. . . .”1

So he had outfitted Jesse, Jupiter and Richard, his black servants, in formal attire befitting the regalia of a proper Virginia gentleman, to include a postilion’s whip for Jesse, who rode the lead horse in the team. Richard sat inside the phaeton with his master; Jupiter, who had been Jefferson’s personal servant and companion ever since student days at the College of William and Mary, trailed behind with the two extra horses. (Jupiter, as it turned out, was to accompany Jefferson throughout most of the early ride into history; he died in 1800 just before Jefferson ascended to the presidency, after drinking a medicinal potion prepared by the “witch doctor” within the slave quarters at Monticello.) No contemporary record survives of the impression this elegant entourage made upon the more austere Quaker residents of Philadelphia, but the jarring juxtapositions that lie at the center of Jefferson’s character and career had already begun to reveal themselves. The man who, precisely a year later, was to draft the most famous and eloquent statement of human rights in American—and perhaps world—history entered national affairs as a conspicuously aristocratic slaveowner. 2

So much that we know about young Jefferson derives from later recollections, when memories were clouded by the golden haze surrounding the mythology of the Declaration of Independence and remembered anecdotes were realigned to fit various personal and political agenda. Moreover, there is the nearly insurmountable difficulty posed by what Jefferson specialists have come to call the problem of the Shadwell fire, which destroyed most of Jefferson’s personal papers in 1770, making the recovery of his formative years an exercise in inspired guesswork. Given the paucity of early evidence and the veritable flood of material that begins to flow after 1776, the temptation to read the young revolutionary through the elder statesman is nearly irresistible and, in some ways, unavoidable.

Take, for example, the matter of young Jefferson’s physical appearance. What did the thirty-two-year-old delegate from Virginia look like? All agree that he was tall, six feet two inches, perhaps a quarter inch taller. After that, however, the picture begins to blur. Edmund Bacon, Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello during the presidential years and then into his retirement, recalled that “his skin was very clear and pure—just like he was in principle.” But most other reports, and most of the later portraits, describe him as red-faced and heavily freckled, with a complexion that was either scorched or radiant, depending on the viewer’s predilections. The only contemporary picture of young Jefferson, a pen-and-ink drawing done by Pierre du Simitière in 1776, shows a somewhat padded face with a vacant stare. And there are reasons to doubt the drawing is really Jefferson at all. But most descriptions of the older Jefferson emphasize his “scranny” or thin face. Bacon said he “had no surplus flesh”—and bright, luminous eyes. The color of his eyes is also controversial. Virtually all the later reports indicate they were clear blue; the earlier descriptions, and most of the portraits, have them hazel or green. Perhaps they changed color in different light. 3

One of his ex-slaves, Isaac, emphasized his erect posture. “Mr. Jefferson was a tall, straight-bodied man as ever you see,” he recalled. “Nary a man in this town walked so straight.” Bacon agreed that Jefferson was “straight as a gun barrell.” But others, mostly enemies, described him as loosely jointed and seemingly collapsible, all wrists, elbows and ankles. The discrepancy might have been a function of different postures. On his feet he was square-shouldered and formal. He bowed to everyone he met and tended to stand with his arms folded across his chest, defining his own private space and warding off intruders. When seated, however, he seemed to melt into the upholstery with a kind of contorted grace, one hip high, the other low, shoulders slouched and uneven, his torso folded in several places, part jackknife and part accordion.

His two most distinctive characteristics were his hair and his incessant singing. Disagreements about the color of his hair, unlike disagreements about his eyes, seem susceptible to reconciliation. It was reddish blond or sandy red. Those few commentators who described it as gray came from a later period, when aging had reduced the reddish hues but made no inroads into his naturally full and thick complement, which was seldom dressed and even less frequently powdered or wigged. He tended to tie it behind his neck much as he sat, loosely and with an air of disheveled informality.

He sang whenever he was walking or riding, sometimes when he was reading. His former slave Isaac reported that one could “hardly see him anywhar outdoors, but that he was a-singin’.” Bacon confirmed that “when he was not talking he was nearly always humming some tune, or singing in a low voice to himself.” Apparently this constant singing was a long-standing habit. So, if we are prepared to take a few leaps of faith, we can plausibly envision him riding into Philadelphia in 1775 in his phaeton, with his horses and his slaves, a tall and slim young Virginian, with reddish blond hair and a self-consciously diffident air, lounging nonchalantly in his seat, singing to himself. 4


THE ELEMENTAL facts of his earlier life, at least the most basic pieces of biographical information, are less fuzzy than a picture of his physical appearance. Jefferson was born in Shadwell, in Albemarle County, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1743. Family legend has it that his earliest memory, when he was only about three years old, “was of being carried on a pillow by a mounted slave on the journey from Shadwell to Tuckahoe,” perhaps a kind of early premonition of his Philadelphia entry. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a moderately successful planter with a local reputation for physical strength and a flair for adventure as an explorer and surveyor of western lands. When he died in 1757, he left behind two hundred hogs, seventy head of cattle, twenty-five horses, sixty slaves, six daughters, two sons and his widow, Jane Randolph Jefferson.

Little is known of her (the problem of the Shadwell fire again), except that as a Randolph she was descended from one of the most prominent families in Virginia. There is reason to believe that Jefferson’s relationship with his mother was strained, especially after his father’s death, when, as the eldest son, he did everything he could to remove himself from her supervision. But all inspired speculation on this point is really pure guesswork; no explicit evidence exists. After boarding with the local schoolmaster to learn his Latin and Greek, he went off to the College of William and Mary in 1760. There he gained a reputation among his classmates as an obsessive student, sometimes spending fifteen hours with his books, three hours practicing his violin and the remaining six hours eating and sleeping. He was an extremely serious young man. 5

After graduating in 1762, he brought his highly disciplined regime to the study of the law in Williamsburg under the tutelage of George Wythe (pronounced with). Then, after a long, five-year apprenticeship, he began to practice on his own, mostly representing small-scale planters from the western counties in cases involving land claims and titles. Although he broke no legal ground and handled no landmark cases, he gained a reputation in the Williamsburg court as an extremely well-prepared barrister, an indifferent speaker before the bench but a formidable legal scholar. 6

In 1768 he made two important decisions: first, to build his own home atop an 867-foot-high mountain on land that he had inherited from his father; second, to offer himself as a candidate for the House of Burgesses. The first decision reflected what was to become his lifelong urge to withdraw into his own very private world. The name he first picked for his prospective home was The Hermitage, a retreat that soon became Monticello, his mansion on a mountain and lifetime architectural project. The second decision reflected his political ambition and growing reputation within the transmontane region of the Old Dominion, as well as his emerging stature within the planter elite of the Tidewater. He took his seat in the House of Burgesses in May 1769, then quickly became a protégé of two established Tidewater grandees: Peyton Randolph, an uncle on his mother’s side as well as the most powerful figure in the legislature, and Edmund Pendleton, the shrewd and famously agile apologist for the planter aristocracy. 7

On New Year’s Day of 1772 he completed his self-image as an aspiring “paterfamilias” by marrying Martha Wales Skelton, an attractive and delicate young widow whose dowry more than doubled his holdings in land and slaves. Marriage seemed to steady him. Up until the early 1770s the various account and commonplace books that he kept for recording his dealings and readings seemed to have been written by a series of different people. The handwriting varies wildly with wholly different slants, penmanship styles and spacing. Around the time of his marriage this unconscious experimentation stopped; his writing settled into the clear, unpretentious form that it retained until old age and that is now enshrined in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. 8

His political identity, on the other hand, remained shadowy and marginal. The first vivid image of Jefferson in the House of Burgesses proved emblematic. As a young law student in Williamsburg he stood in the hallway of the House, listening to Patrick Henry toss off his extempore oratorical thunderbolts against the Stamp Act in 1765. Jefferson was a listener and observer, distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, shy and nervous in a distracted manner that was sometimes mistaken for arrogance. 9

From his earliest days in the House he opposed all forms of parliamentary taxation and supported nonimportation resolutions against British trade regulations. But so did most other members of the House, along with the entire Tidewater leadership. (In 1771 his political radicalism collided with his domestic agenda when he ordered an expensive piano from London, “of fine mahogany, solid, not veneered,” in anticipation of his marriage to Martha. Even though this violated the nonimportation resolution, he ordered it sent anyway, saying he would store it until the embargo was lifted. The same thing happened three years later on an order of “sashed windows” for Monticello.) He seemed to most of his political contemporaries a hovering and ever-silent presence, like one of those foreigners at a dinner party who nod politely as they move from group to group but never reveal whether or not they can speak the language. He had a deep-seated aversion to the inherent contentions and routinized hurly-burly of a political career and was forever telling his friends that life on the public stage was not for him. Just as his political career was getting started, he seemed poised for retirement. 10

Given his subsequent role in the Continental Congress and then in shaping the course of the American Revolution, his selection to serve on the Virginia delegation in Philadelphia was a fortunate accident. Jefferson was not elected to the original delegation in 1774; he was not considered a sufficiently prominent figure to be included with the likes of George Washington, Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton and Peyton Randolph. In 1775, however, he was chosen as a potential substitute for Randolph—Jefferson was regarded as Randolph’s political godson—in anticipation of Randolph’s decision to abandon his post at Philadelphia in order to assume leadership of what was regarded as the more important business back in Virginia. It would be fair to say that Jefferson made the list of acknowledged political leaders in the Old Dominion, but just barely, and largely because of his ties by blood and patronage with the Randolph circle. If his arrival in Philadelphia in June 1775 marked his entry into national affairs, he entered by the side door. 11


THERE WAS ONE significant exception to this dominant pattern of reticence and marginality, but it happened to be the one item that delegates from the other colonies knew about the young Jefferson. “I have not been in Company with him yet,” reported Samuel Ward the day after Jefferson arrived, but “he looks like a very sensible spirited, fine Fellow and by the Pamphlet which he wrote last Summer he certainly is one.” Likewise John Adams recalled that Jefferson entered the Continental Congress carrying “the reputation of a masterly pen . . . , 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.” 12

The reference was to a pamphlet that Jefferson had somewhat inadvertently published the previous year. In July 1774 he had taken it upon himself to draft a set of instructions for the first Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress. In a typical act of avoidance he had come up sick for the debate in the Virginia Convention, but friends had arranged for the publication of his draft by a press in Williamsburg. From there printers and newspaper editors throughout the colonies had picked up the pamphlet under the title of A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The audience at whom Jefferson had actually aimed his instructions, the Virginia legislators, chose not to follow them, preferring to recommend that its delegates adopt a moderate posture toward Great Britain. What Jefferson had recommended, and what became the basis of his political reputation outside Virginia, was decidedly more radical. Indeed, if the arguments of Summary View were to be believed, they put him in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement in America. 13

The style of Summary View was simple and emphatic, with a dramatic flair that previewed certain passages in the Declaration of Independence (e.g., “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of the day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably thro’ every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery”). What most readers noticed, however, and Jefferson later claimed was his chief contribution, was the constitutional argument that Parliament had no right whatsoever to exercise authority over the colonies. While this position had been implicit in the colonial protest literature ever since the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, the clarity of the colonial case had fallen afoul of several complicating distinctions. Granted, Parliament had no right to tax the colonists without their consent, but did it not have the power to regulate trade? Well, yes, it did, but not when the intent of the trade regulation was to raise revenue. But, then, how was intent to be gauged? And what about Parliament’s other legislative actions, like quartering troops in colonial cities and closing Boston’s port? These nagging questions made for a somewhat convoluted constitutional problem. Could Parliament do some of these things but not others? If so, how did one decide which was which? The core appeal of Summary View was that Jefferson cut through the tangle with one sharp thrust: “[T]he British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.” 14

The timing of the pamphlet was also exquisite. Several other colonial dissenters—John Adams in Massachusetts and James Wilson in Pennsylvania—were simultaneously reaching the same conclusion about Parliament’s lack of authority in the colonies. It was, as mentioned earlier, the logical implication of the entire colonial protest movement that had begun in 1765. But Jefferson staked out the constitutional ground just as it was becoming the only tenable position for the opponents of British imperial policy to stand on. And he did it in a pamphlet that combined the concision and matter-of-factness of a legal brief with the epigrammatic force of a political sermon. 15

Two other salient features of Summary View received little attention at the time but were destined to loom large in the debates within the Continental Congress over the ensuing months. The first was Jefferson’s treatment of George III and his attitude toward the British monarchy. The dominant public reaction to Summary View focused on its repudiation of parliamentary authority, because that was the pressing constitutional issue then being faced throughout the various colonial legislatures. What went largely unnoticed was that Jefferson had already moved forward to the next target, the monarchy, which was in fact the only remaining obstacle to the assertion of American independence. To put it somewhat differently, the lengthy indictments against the king that take up two-thirds of the Declaration of Independence were already present in embryo in Summary View.

Jefferson’s posture toward the monarch throughout Summary View is declaratory rather than plaintive, and the tone toward George III ranges between the disrespectful and the accusatory. The king is not some specially endowed ruler but merely “the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendence.” Rather than blame the entire mismanagement of imperial policy toward America on Parliament or “the evil ministers to the king,” still the accepted approach within even the radical camp, Jefferson made the king complicitous in the crimes against colonial rights. He accused George III of negligence: permitting colonial assemblies to be dissolved; refusing to hear appeals from aggrieved petitioners; delaying the passage of land reforms. But he also charged the king with outright acts of illegality on his own: sending armed troops into colonial cities to put down lawful demonstrations; prohibiting the natural migration of colonial settlers beyond the Appalachian Mountains. He even introduced the charge that provoked such spirited debate when included in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence—namely, that George III had perpetuated the existence of chattel slavery by repeatedly blocking colonial efforts to end the African slave trade. In effect, with the advantage of hindsight, it is possible to see Summary View as a preliminary draft of the bill of indictment against George III contained in the Declaration, written a full two years before the more famous document and before Jefferson had even taken his seat in the Continental Congress. 16

The second latent feature in Summary View that went unnoticed at the time is of even greater significance in exposing Jefferson’s cast of mind at the dawn of his public career. It is an elaborate and largely mythological version of English history. In the midst of his litany against monarchical abuses of power, Jefferson inserted a long paragraph in which he traced the origin of such abuses back to the Norman Conquest. The source of the colonial problem with British authority did not date from the Stamp Act crisis of 1765; the problem really began in 1066, when the Normans defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. This was the origin of what Jefferson called “the fictitious principle that all lands belong originally to the king. . . .” All of English history since the Norman Conquest had been an unfortunate aberration, known under the name of feudalism, which then flared up in a most virulent form in the recent royal exercise of arbitrary power in the colonies. Jefferson indulged his own “fictitious principle” by purporting to discover in the Saxon past of pre-Norman England, and before that in the forests of Germany, a set of people who lived freely and harmoniously, without kings or lords to rule over them, working and owning their land as sovereign agents. 17

The “once upon a time” character of Jefferson’s interpretation, which has also come to be known as the Whig interpretation of history, deserves studied attention as a crucial clue to Jefferson’s deepest intellectual instincts. He had been exposed to the central story line of Whig history in several books that he read as a young man, chiefly Paul de Rapin’s multivolume History of England and Sir John Dalrymple’s History of Feudal Property in Great Britain. He had also read in translation Tacitus’s Germania, the key source for the Whig historians because of its description of the Saxon model of representative government before contamination by feudal monarchs. So Jefferson’s youthful reading in standard works of Whig history unquestionably helped shape his political thinking before 1776 and was one reason he consistently referred to “the ancient Whig principles” as the wellspring for the values underlying the movement for American independence. But the appeal of the Whig histories derived from something more than their rhetorical or logic power. They were influential precisely because they told a story that fitted perfectly with the way his mind worked. Their romantic endorsement of a pristine past, a long-lost time and place where men had lived together in perfect harmony without coercive laws or predatory rulers, gave narrative shape to his fondest imaginings and to utopian expectations with deep roots in his personality. The Whig histories did not create his romantic expectations. They put into words the visionary prospects he already carried around in his mind and heart.

During the initial months in Philadelphia Jefferson was less concerned with plumbing the depths of his Whig principles than with sharing their practical implications with his fellow delegates. The key term was “expatriation.” The core idea was that America was the refuge for the original Saxon values. Throughout the fall and winter of 1775 Jefferson did extensive research in Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages with the aim of documenting the claim that the earliest migrants from England to America came over at their own expense “unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain” and, most significantly, regarded their migration as a clean break with the mother country. If true, this was revisionist history with the most revolutionary consequences, for it suggested that independence from England was not some future prospect that he and his fellow delegates in the Continental Congress were seriously contemplating; it was an event that had already happened in the misty past. 18

The theory of expatriation was utterly groundless as history. (Jefferson clung to the theory with nearly obsessive tenacity throughout his life, though even he admitted that “I had never been able to get any one to agree with me but Mr. Wythe,” his old law teacher.) John Adams had only recently published his own survey of colonial history, entitled Novanglus, in which he too searched for the sources of American claims to independence from royal and parliamentary authority. But instead of a mystical Saxon past, Adams discovered a complex web of overlapping precedents and contested jurisdictions. This was truer to the inherent messiness of English and colonial history, which had witnessed several major changes in the relationship between royal and parliamentary power during the colonial era, fundamental differences among charters contingent on when different colonies were founded, and only the most gradual realization on the part of English authorities that they in fact were overseeing an empire. Jefferson’s theory of expatriation bore the same relation to colonial history as a nursery rhyme does to a Jamesian novel. That undoubtedly was part of its appeal. 19

The Jeffersonian impulse to invent and then embrace such seductive fictions was not a deliberate effort at propaganda. Jefferson believed what he wrote. True, he could consciously play fast and loose with the historical evidence on behalf of a greater cause. Jefferson’s intellectual dexterity in assigning blame for the slave trade on George III, for example, could be explained as a clever ploy. No one in his right mind believed it, but it could be endorsed as a politically useful misrepresentation. The same thing could be said for his spiffied-up version of the Boston Tea Party in Summary View. In Jefferson’s account, a dedicated group of loyal Bostonians risked arrest and persecution to destroy a cargo of the contraband. Samuel Adams, a major figure in the Continental Congress and the chief organizer of the Tea Party, must have chuckled in satisfaction, knowing as he did that the “loyal Bostonians” were really a group of hooligans and vandals who had disguised themselves as Indians in order to avoid being identified and who had enjoyed the tacit support of the Boston merchants, many of whom had made their fortunes in smuggling. Sam Adams realized that the Tea Party was an orchestrated act of revolutionary theater. Jefferson described it as a spontaneous act of patriotism conducted according to the etiquette of, well, a tea party. But then again, perhaps Jefferson’s version was itself a propagandistic manipulation, just as self-consciously orchestrated as the Tea Party itself. 20

The Saxon myth and the doctrine of expatriation, however, were a different matter. They were not clever and willful distortions. They were complete fabrications. And Jefferson clearly believed they were true. Their distinguishing feature was an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale quality. History is full of wise and great figures whose greatness derived from the will to believe in what eventually proved to be a set of illusions. But Jefferson’s illusions possess a sentimental and almost juvenile character that strains credulity. Since this affinity for idealized or idyllic visions, and the parallel capacity to deny evidence that exposed them as illusory, proved a central feature of Jefferson’s mature thought and character, it seems necessary to ask where it all came from.

The explanation lies buried in the inner folds of Jefferson’s personality, beyond the reach of traditional historical methods and canons of evidence. What we can discern is a reclusive pattern of behavior with distinctive psychological implications. The youthful Jefferson had already shown himself to be an extremely private temperament. Monticello offers the most graphic illustration of Jefferson’s need to withdraw from the rest of the world, filled as it was with human conflicts and coercions, and create a refuge where the perfect Palladian architecture established the ideal environment for his vision of domestic harmony. And he tended to talk about his craving for a safe haven from the messiness and disorder of the world in decidedly melodramatic terms. “There may be people to whose tempers and dispositions Contention may be pleasing,” he wrote to John Randolph in 1775, “but to me it is of all states, but one, the most horrid.” He much preferred “to withdraw myself totally from the public stage and pass the rest of my days in domestic ease and tranquillity, banishing every desire of afterwards even hearing what passes in the world.” The most astute student of Jefferson’s lifelong compulsion to make and then remake Monticello into a perfect palace and a “magical mystery tour of architectural legerdemain” has concluded that Jefferson’s obsessive “putting up and pulling down” are best understood as a form of “childhood play adapted to an adult world.” Both the expectations that Jefferson harbored for his private life in his mansion on the mountain, as well as his way of trying to design and construct it, suggested a level of indulged sentimentality that one normally associates with an adolescent. 21

The very few personal letters from his early years that have survived reflect a similar pattern of juvenile romanticism. At the age of twenty, soon after he had graduated from William and Mary, Jefferson wrote his best friend, John Page: “I verily beleive [sic] Page that I shall die soon, and yet I can give no other reason for it but that I am tired with living. At this moment when I am writing I am scarcely sensible that I exist. Adieu Dear Page.” A few months later he reported to Page his mortification at discovering that his infatuation with Rebecca Burwell, a coquettish beauty then turning heads in Williamsburg, was a hopeless cause. Jefferson had approached her at a dance in the Apollo Room of Raleigh Tavern, only to find himself tongue-tied and Rebecca uninterested. “I had dressed up in my own mind, such thoughts as occurred to me, in as moving language as I knew how, and expected to have performed in a tolerably creditable manner,” he explained. “But, good God!” 22

In one sense such fragments of evidence only document that Jefferson was the epitome of the painfully self-conscious teenager (though in fact he was twenty at the time of the Rebecca Burwell fiasco). In another sense, however, they offer glimpses of a very vulnerable young man accustomed to constructing interior worlds of great imaginative appeal that inevitably collided with the more mundane realities. Rather than adjust his expectations in the face of disappointment, he tended to bury them deeper inside himself and regard the disjunction between his ideals and worldly imperfections as the world’s problem rather than his own.

Jefferson’s strange attachment, then, to the myth of the Saxon past was an early ideological manifestation of a characteristically Jeffersonian cast of mind. It represented his discovery—in truth, his invention—of an idyllic time and place that accorded with his powerful sense of the way things were meant to be. And any compromise of that seductive vision was a betrayal of one’s personal principles. Back there in the faraway world of pre-Norman England, prior to the feudal corruptions, men and women had found it possible to combine individual independence and social harmony, personal freedom and the rule of law, the need to work and the urge to play. Throughout his life Jefferson was haunted by the prospects of such a paradise and eager to find it in bucolic pastoral scenes, distant Indian tribes, well-ordered gardens, local communities (he later called them ward-republics) or new and therefore uncorrupted generations. At the private level the young man who was taking his seat in the Continental Congress had already begun to build his personal version of utopia at Monticello. At the public level he was preparing to release his formidable energies against a British government that, as he saw it, was threatening to disrupt and destroy the patch of potential perfection that was forming on the western edge of the British Empire. Whatever weaknesses this Jeffersonian perspective harbored as a mature and realistic appraisal of the Anglo-American crisis, it possessed all the compensating advantages of an unequivocal moral commitment driven by an unsullied sense of righteous indignation. 23


SUCH ASSETS were not immediately visible to his colleagues in the Continental Congress. We know, with the advantage of hindsight, that Jefferson was destined to emerge in the history books as the most famous figure in Philadelphia in 1776. In the summer of 1775, however, while his authorship of Summary View provided a measure of status and his membership in the Virginia delegation assured that his opinions mattered, no one could have predicted that his contribution over the course of the next year would earn him a permanent place in posterity. Not only was he a thoroughly marginal player within Virginia’s cast of stars, he lacked precisely those qualities that the members of Congress considered most essential. His most glaring deficiency was the talent most valued in Philadelphia: He could not speak in public.

This was a major liability because the Continental Congress was regarded by most observers as an arena for orators. John Adams, who has left the fullest personal account of the debates and deliberations, had come to Philadelphia the previous year wondering who would be the American Cicero or Demosthenes (and hoping the fates had selected him for both roles). His diary entries convey something of the sense that pervaded the debates, the sense that as each man rose to speak, he was being judged by his colleagues as a contestant in a game of conspicuous eloquence. Adams observed that Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was “sprightly but not deep” and had the distracting habit of speaking through his nose. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania was dismissed as “too much of a talker. . . . Elegant but not deep.” Roger Sherman of Connecticut was a perfect model of awkwardness: “There cannot be a more striking contrast to beautiful Action, than the Motions of his Hands. Generally, he stands upright with his Hands before him. . . . But when he moves a Hand, in any thing like Action, Hogarth’s Genius could not have invented a Motion more opposite to grace. It is Stiffness, and Awkwardness itself. Awkward as a Junior Bachelor, or a Sophomore.” By the time Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia Adams himself had begun to emerge as one of the most effective public speakers in the Congress, a man whose own throbbing ego had lashed itself to the cause of independence and whose combination of legal learning and sheer oratorical energy had overwhelmed more moderate delegates in a powerful style that seemed part bulldog and part volcano. 24

Meanwhile the elevated status of the Virginia delegation derived primarily from its reputation for oratorical brilliance. Edmund Pendleton was the silver-haired and silver-tongued master of the elegant style. Jefferson later described him as the “ablest man in debate I have ever met with.” Pendleton’s specialty was the cool and low-key peroration that hypnotized the audience, while his arguments waged a silent guerrilla war against its better judgment, until the matter at issue came around to his way of thinking almost inadvertently, like a natural aristocrat winning a race without ever appearing to exert himself. 25

Richard Henry Lee was more inflammable and ostentatious. If Pendleton’s technique suggested a peaceful occupation, Lee was a proponent of the all-out invasion. Opponents winced whenever he rose to speak, knowing as they did that their arguments were about to be carried off to oblivion in a whirlwind of words. Lee’s theatricality was somewhat contrived; he liked to wrap his hand in a silk handkerchief as he spoke, explaining that he wished to shield onlookers from the unsightly appearance of his mangled hand, missing several fingers because of a hunting accident. Or was it a duel? Lee was to Pendleton as a bomb was to a pistol. But both men were famous on their feet. 26

The undisputed oratorical champion of Virginia of course was Patrick Henry, whose presence in the Virginia delegation generated more public attention than anyone else except George Washington. Henry’s speech against the Stamp Act had been widely publicized throughout the colonies, so he already carried a national reputation for incandescence. As Edmund Randolph put it, “for grand impressions in the defense of liberty, the Western world has not yet been able to exhibit a rival.” If Pendleton was the suave aristocrat and Lee the mannered dramatist, Henry was the evangelical preacher, who came at an audience in waves of emotional inspiration, each separated by exaggerated pauses that seemed to most listeners like the silence preceding divine judgment.

All of Jefferson’s surviving observations on Henry date from a later time, when their friendship had turned sour (Jefferson claimed that Henry was “avaritious & rotten hearted” and always spoke “without logic, without arrangement . . .”). But even Jefferson’s criticisms betrayed a certain admiration for Henry’s capacity to sway a crowd by emotional appeals unencumbered with any learning or evidence. In 1784 he warned James Madison that Henry’s opposition to constitutional reforms in Virginia must not be taken lightly since one of his spellbinders could undo weeks of careful work behind the scenes. There was no way to account for his mysterious influence over others or to deal with him in full flight. “What we have to do,” lamented Jefferson to Madison, “is devoutly pray for his death.” In the Continental Congress, of course, Henry’s oratorical brilliance was still a priceless asset rather than a formidable liability. Like Jefferson, Henry was a product of Virginia’s western frontier who had won acceptance from the Tidewater elite, but unlike Jefferson, he always retained the primal quality of a natural force, like the Natural Bridge that Jefferson so admired, one of those spontaneous creations of the gods spawned in the western mountains. 27

Compared with Henry, Jefferson epitomized the diametrically different sensibility of the refined and disciplined scholar. As far as we know, he never rose to deliver a single speech in the Continental Congress. Even within the more intimate atmosphere of committees, he preferred to let others do the talking. John Adams recalled, with a mingled sense of admiration and astonishment, that “during the whole Time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” No one, however, including the ever-skeptical Adams, ever doubted his radical credentials. His clear denunciation of British authority in Summary View put him on record as an opponent of moderation. But he was utterly useless in situations that demanded the projection of a public presence. He was almost as inadequate in behind-the-scenes arm twisting and cajoling, which were the specialty of John’s cousin Sam Adams. He was simply too shy and withdrawn to interact easily in the corridors. 28

By disposition and habit, Jefferson’s most comfortable arena was the study and his most natural podium was the writing desk. Ever since his college days at William and Mary, continuing through his study and eventual practice of the law, Jefferson spent an inordinate amount of his time alone, reading and taking extensive notes on what he read. He called this practice “commonplacing,” referring to the copying over of passages from Coke or Pufendorf on the law, Milton or Shakespeare on the human condition, Kames or Hutcheson on man’s moral sense. But Jefferson made copying a creative act, often revising a passage to suit his own taste or, more often, blending his own thoughts on the subject into his notes. He was a young man who very much liked to be in control. Solitary study allowed him to work out his private perspectives without interference and without the unpredictability of an improvisational debate. 29

His first act after settling into his quarters on Chestnut Street was to undertake a solitary assessment of how much a war against England might cost the colonies, not in terms of deaths but in terms of dollars. He seemed to believe that an all-out military conflict would not last long. “One bloody campaign,” he wrote a friend, “will probably decide everlastingly our future course.” So his calculations of cost were based on the assumption of a six-month war, which he estimated would require about three million dollars in new taxes. 30

At some point during the summer he commissioned his landlord, Benjamin Randolph, who was a relative on his mother’s side as well as a skilled cabinetmaker, to design a writing desk. He also acquired a new Windsor chair as a comfortable seat. These implements, which eventually became sacred relics because of their subsequent association with the Declaration of Independence, defined the space within which his creative energies could best express themselves. Within a short time his accountlike estimates of military costs were put aside for the more serious business of explaining, in words, why the American colonies must take up arms in the first place.

The leadership in Congress selected him to draft an address eventually entitled Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms. This was a significant assignment. The address was regarded as a major statement of current thinking in Congress; an earlier effort had floundered over disagreements about language. The selection of Jefferson reflected his reputation as a literary craftsman and the practical recognition that he could make his greatest contribution as a writer rather than a speaker.

The assignment also forces us to notice an awkward and easily forgotten fact—namely, that although an official declaration of American independence was a year away, the war itself had already started. By the time Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill had already occurred and George Washington had headed off to command an army outside Boston. While the moderates within the Continental Congress continued to hold open the hope of reconciliation with England, by the summer of 1775 the initiative had passed over to the radicals, led by John and Sam Adams, who regarded independence as inevitable. And every action by the British ministry seemed calculated to undercut the moderate faction and make the radicals appear prescient. From the beginning Jefferson identified himself, as did the Virginia delegation, with the radicals. His personal correspondence at this time reflects no doubt that the time for compromise had passed. In June 1775, for example, he wrote relatives in Virginia that “the war is now heartily entered into, without a prospect of accommodation but thro’ the effectual interposition of arms.” A month later he was writing John Randolph that rather than agree to English terms for reconciliation, he “would lend my hand to sink the whole island in the ocean.” The question as Jefferson saw it was no longer whether the American colonies would declare independence, but when and how. 31

This is crucial to understand, for it served to shape in subtle but important ways Jefferson’s stylistic agenda throughout the next year as the chief draftsman for the revolutionary cause. On the one hand, the delegates in the Continental Congress were busy raising an army, instructing colonial legislatures on ways to draw up new state constitutions, investigating foreign alliances, overseeing an ongoing war. On the other hand, they were insisting they wished to avoid an open rupture with the mother country and pledging their undying loyalty to George III. Somehow these incompatible political postures, which reflected the split between radicals and moderates in the Congress, had to be stitched together rhetorically. And although the official audience was the English ministry, the actual audience was the American people, or at least the different colonial legislatures that needed to be provided with a way of explaining to themselves why the formerly unthinkable had now become inevitable.

At the purely constitutional level Jefferson’s argument in Causes and Necessity represented a slight retreat from the position advanced in Summary View. Instead of denying Parliament any legitimate authority in the colonies, Jefferson conceded that “some occasional assumptions of power by the parliament of Great Britain, however unacknowledged by the constitution of our governments, were finally acquiesced in thro’ warmth of affection.” This was undoubtedly a concession to the moderates in the Congress and a reflection of Jefferson’s realization that he needed to accommodate perspectives different from his own. The expatriation theme was also presented in muted form. “Our forefathers . . . left their native land,” he wrote, “to seek on these shores a residence for civil and religious freedom.” But there was no invocation of the Saxon myth or of the Norman captivity of traditional English rights. Jefferson was bending over backward to avoid alienating the undecided. 32

Jefferson’s main contribution in Causes and Necessities was to provide a story line that brought all American colonists together as innocent victims. Earlier American critics of British policy—men like John Adams, John Dickinson and Daniel Dulany—had made the legal argument that Parliament’s intrusion into colonial affairs after the end of the French and Indian War (1763) was unprecedented. In England Edmund Burke had referred to the period prior to the war as an era of “salutary neglect.” Jefferson’s version of the Anglo-American conflict simply enhanced the dramatic implications of the shift in British policy. Before 1763 the empire was harmonious and healthy, an American version of his earlier descriptions of serenity in the Saxon forests. Then, all of a sudden, “the ministry, finding all the foes of Britain subdued, took up the unfortunate idea of subduing her friends also.” Jefferson showed a flair for, and an intuitive attraction toward, a narrative structure built around moralistic dichotomies. The empire “then and now” set the theme. The story became a clash between British tyranny and colonial liberty, scheming British officials and supplicating colonists, all culminating in the clash at Lexington and Concord between General Thomas Gage’s “ministerial army” and “the unsuspecting inhabitants” of Massachusetts. All this was conveyed in what we might call the sentimental style of the innocent victim. 33

It is impossible to know how much of this cartoonlike version of the imperial crisis Jefferson actually believed and how much was a stylistic affectation. William Livingston, the delegate from New York, observed that Jefferson’s prose in Causes and Necessities reminded him of the oratorical style of the other Virginians: “Much fault-finding and declamation, with little sense of dignity. They seem to think a reiteration of tyranny, despotism, bloody, etc., all that is needed to unite us at home. . . .” Perhaps Jefferson’s draft represented his attempt to achieve in prose what his Virginian colleagues like Henry were creating in set-piece orations. Within that self-consciously melodramatic tradition, one was allowed to speak of “the unsuspecting inhabitants” of Lexington and Concord, all the while knowing perfectly well that they were lined up in military formation when the British troops arrived. 34

Specific factual extravagances are less important to note than Jefferson’s overall narrative scheme. The colonists are innocent bystanders being acted on by an aggressive British government. The political conflict invariably takes the form of a moral dichotomy that leaves no room for shaded meanings or ambivalent loyalties. The bitterness and confusion of the present are contrasted with the “once upon a time” version of the past. And most effectively, the real revolutionaries are not American colonists but British officials, who are just as unmitigatedly corrupt as the colonists are virtuous.

The rhetorical excess of Causes and Necessities merits additional meditation, in part because it was a preview of coming attractions in the Declaration and in part because its message was conveyed in coded language familiar to Jefferson and his contemporaries but strange to our modern ears and sensibilities. The key feature was the apparent extremism of the contrast between American virtue and British corruption, which itself depended upon an implicit presumption that sinister forces were conspiring in London’s faraway corridors of power to deprive unsuspecting colonists of their liberties. Like the Saxon myth, this way of thinking and talking about politics had deep roots in the Whig tradition in England, dating back to the Puritan dissenters during the English Civil War in the 1640s. The chief eighteenth-century proponents of this dissenting tradition, who called themselves Real Whigs or the Country Party, were Englishmen: Henry St. John Bolingbroke, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (writing under the pseudonym of Cato) and James Burgh. They had created a language, and indeed an ideology, of opposition to the arbitrary and abusive exercise of power by the British ministry, often described as the Court Party, distinctive for its neurotic suspicion of government’s motives and its stark moral contrasts between popular virtue and official corruption.

Jefferson’s library contained copies of the major writings of Bolingbroke, “Cato” and Burgh, and he along with his colleagues in the Continental Congress were well versed in the arguments and the idiom of English Whiggery. What strikes our modern ears as hyperbolic and melodramatic both in its tone and its posture toward political authority—virtually any expression of governmental power is stigmatized—was in fact part of a venerable Whig tradition of opposition. It was an acceptable and familiar style of political argumentation that had proved extremely useful in the previous decade of protest against British taxation. It had enormous polemic potential in simplifying the bewildering constitutional complexities facing both the colonists and the British ministry. Even its quasi-paranoid attitude toward the motives of decision-makers in London and Whitehall enjoyed at least the appearance of cool reason during the spring of 1776, as George III and his ministers seemed bent on behaving like villains in the Whig script.

What deserves special attention, however, is that Jefferson’s embrace of the Whig rhetoric and the Whig story line was utterly sincere. His draft of Causes and Necessities, then his subsequent draft of the Declaration, were not undertaken as self-conscious polemics or exaggerated pieces of propaganda. What he wrote actually reflected his understanding of the forces swirling through Anglo-America. What some delegates in the Congress regarded as a conveniently useful distortion that would help mobilize colonial opinion in the direction that destiny required, Jefferson regarded as an accurate characterization of the essential elements of the political situation. Whether or not he had acquired the primal categories of his political thinking from the Whig historians and Country Party theorists, by the spring of 1776 he had thoroughly absorbed their style and substance into his own personality, where they only served to buttress his extreme aversion to explicit expressions of authority and his instinctive tendency to think in terms of moralistic dichotomies. Jefferson was, then, a quintessential Whig, but the Whig values were so appealing because they blended so nicely with his own quintessentially Jeffersonian character.

He also showed himself extremely sensitive to any criticism of his prose. This led to Jefferson’s first political battle in the Continental Congress, when John Dickinson questioned the tone and wording of several sections of the Jefferson draft of Causes and Necessities. Dickinson was a delegate from Pennsylvania and the acknowledged leader of the moderate faction in the Congress. He had been put on the committee to draft Causes and Necessities in order to assure bipartisan support for the document. Jefferson’s late-in-life recollection of Dickinson’s objections therefore sounded quite plausible: “I prepared a Draught of the Declaration committed to us. It was too strong for Mr. Dickinson. He still retained the hope of reconciliation with the mother country, and was unwilling it should be lessened by offensive statements.”

After much editorial detective work in the twentieth century, however, Jefferson’s wholly plausible recollection has been discredited. Dickinson’s suggested revisions did not represent a watering down of Jefferson’s message. In fact Dickinson inserted the strongest and most quotable words in the entire document: “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is attainable.” Jefferson’s objections were essentially stylistic and temperamental. Dickinson’s revisions injected a more matter-of-fact tone that offset Jefferson’s dramatic dichotomies. Mostly, however, Jefferson could not abide any tampering with his verbal creations. He had worked out his arrangement of words in isolation. In the give-and-take of the drafting committee, he regarded all critical suggestions as unwelcome and misguided corruptions. The purity of his prose, like the purity of the colonial cause, did not permit compromise. 35

The Continental Congress resolved the impasse by approving a final draft that included most of Dickinson’s changes. Despite the revisions, it retained Jeffersonian intonations that, a year later in slightly altered form, were to echo through the ages: “So to Slight Justice and the Opinion of Mankind, we esteem ourselves bound by Obligations of Respect to the Rest of the World, to make known the Justice of our Cause.” His composition of Causes and Necessities, like Summary View, proved a dress rehearsal for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. 36

By the end of the summer of 1775, then, the pattern was set. Jefferson played no role in the public debates, but he was appointed to several committees and often charged with the responsibility of drafting the reports. He was asked, for instance, to draft the Resolutions of Congress on Lord North’s Proposal, a spirited rejection of the English government’s halfhearted offer of compromise. He was asked to draft the Declaration on the British Treatment of Ethan Allen, a protest against trying Allen for treason. Despite his public silence, as well as his reticence during committee debates and his thin-skinned attitude toward criticisms of his literary craftsmanship, the leadership of the radical faction in the Congress counted him as a staunch and valuable ally. More than fifty years later John Adams remembered Jefferson as “a silent member in Congress,” but “so prompt, frank, explicit and decisive . . . that he soon won my heart.” Though only eight years older than Jefferson, Adams claimed that he initially regarded him as a son. 37

The gravitational pull of Monticello remained a constant seduction. Indeed, if there were a fundamental rule of emotional physics for Jefferson, it was an attraction for isolation and an aversion to the public arena: He hated the debates in Congress; could barely tolerate the bickerings on committees; preferred to read and work alone in his quarters, but longed to escape the “cockpit of revolution” altogether and retire to his mountaintop. In December 1775 he did just that. Throughout the winter and spring, while the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, declared martial law and infuriated the Tidewater leadership by inviting all slaves to join him as free men in war against the planter class, and while the political tempo in Philadelphia quickened, especially after the publication of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, Jefferson remained secluded at Monticello. He focused his attention on Martha, who was ill, probably because of a difficult pregnancy. And he indulged his private cravings. He stocked his cellar with Madeira (vintage 1770), his private park with domesticated deer, his stable with a new line of thoroughbred foals and his soul with a much needed dose of serenity. 38

He planned, albeit reluctantly, to return to Philadelphia in April but was struck by a “mysterious malady” that left him incapacitated for more than a month. The ailment turned out to be a migraine headache, the first recorded occurrence of what proved a lifelong affliction that flared up whenever he felt unduly pressured. The immediate sources of the pressure he felt in the spring of 1776 were probably twofold: First, his public duties in the Continental Congress were at odds with his private preferences to remain at home; second, his mother had died on the last day of March. His estrangement from her in all likelihood prompted complicated feelings of guilt and relief. In any event his only mention of the event was characteristically cold and curt. “The death of my mother you have probably not heard of,” he wrote to William Randolph: “This happened on the last day of March after an illness of not more than an hour. We suppose it to have been apoplectic. Be pleased to tender my affectionate wishes to Mrs. Randolph and my unknown cousins. . . .” Save for a brief mention in his autobiography, it was the last time Jefferson acknowledged her existence. 39

He arrived back in Philadelphia on May 14. Not only did he lack any inkling of the historic events that were about to transpire—he confessed that he was completely out of touch with the evolving situation in Congress—but he even tried to persuade friends in Virginia to have him recalled. The Virginia legislature was meeting in convention at Williamsburg to draft a state constitution, and Jefferson, like a good many other delegates in Philadelphia, presumed that the most crucial political business was now occurring at the state rather than national level. The act of drafting new state constitutions, he noted, “is the whole object of the present controversy.” He meant that the establishment of state governments was the most discernible way to declare American independence, indicating as it did the assumption of political responsibility for the management of American domestic affairs. (John Adams agreed with this perspective and, leaving nothing to chance, had spent the spring designing model constitutions for several states.) Peyton Randolph, Edmund Pendleton and Patrick Henry all had opted to remain back home in the Old Dominion, either to oversee the drafting of Virginia’s constitution or to take the field against Dunmore’s ragtag army of former slaves and loyalists. George Washington was in the field organizing the Continental Army. Philadelphia, or so it seemed, had become a mere sideshow. 40

But Philadelphia was where duty demanded that Jefferson place himself. Anticipating the imminent arrival of a hot and humid summer, he decided to shift his lodgings to the outskirts of the city in order to “have the benefits of a freely circulating air.” On May 23 he moved his Windsor chair and writing desk into new quarters on the second floor of a three-story brick house at the corner of Market and Seventh streets. The chair, the desk and the entire dwelling were about to become sacred relics of what history was to record as America’s most miraculous moment. 41


DURING THE NEXT six weeks, from mid-May to early July 1776, Jefferson wrote the words that made him famous and that, over the course of the next two centuries, associated him with the most visionary version of the American dream. As a result, this historical ground has been trampled over by hordes of historians, and the air surrounding it is perpetually full of an incandescent mixture of incense and smoke. His authorship of the Declaration of Independence is regarded as one of those few quasi-religious episodes in American history, that moment when, at least according to the most romantic explanations, a solitary Jefferson was allowed a glimpse of the eternal truths and then offered the literary inspiration to inscribe them on the American soul.

Given this supercharged context, it is the beginning of all genuine wisdom to recognize that neither Jefferson nor any other of the participants foresaw the historical significance of what they were doing at the time. What’s more, within the context of Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, the writing of the Declaration of Independence did not seem nearly so important as other priorities, including the constitution-making of the states and the prospect of foreign alliances with France or Spain. The golden haze around the Declaration had not yet formed. The sense of history we bring to the subject did not exist for those making it.

One man, John Adams, has left a record that suggests he was conscious of being “present at the creation.” In May he wrote to his beloved Abigail in a prophetic mood: “When I consider the great Events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental in touching some Springs, and turning some small Wheels, which have had and will have such Effects, I feel an Awe upon my Mind, which is not easily described.” Two weeks later he announced to Abigail that he had begun to make copies of all his letters, a clear sign that he was sending them to posterity. But Adams was hardly typical. His neurotic sensitivity to his own place in history became legendary. And his remarks at the time referred to actions in the Continental Congress requiring the states to draft new constitutions, not to the drafting of the Declaration, which he considered a merely ornamental afterthought. 42

Jefferson, for his part, remained focused on events back in Virginia. Throughout the weeks of late May and early June he devoted the bulk of his energies to producing three different drafts of a new constitution for his home state. Clearly influenced by the John Adams pamphlet Thoughts on Government, Jefferson emphasized the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and a bicameral legislature, with a weak executive (called the Administrator in order to signify his lack of governing power). Every political paper that Jefferson had written up to this point in his life had been a protest statement against some aspect of British policy. Therefore it is interesting to note that his initial effort at a positive and practical vision of government recommended a constitutional structure that adopted the general form of the old colonial governments, the exception being the diminution of executive authority, clearly a lesson rooted in the colonial resistance to gubernatorial claims of royal prerogative. 43

Anyone on the lookout for more avowedly progressive features in Jefferson’s thinking could have found them. Although he required a property qualification for all voters, he also proposed a land distribution policy that would provide fifty acres for each resident. He quietly inserted a radical provision for complete religious freedom. And he urged that the new constitution be ratified by a special convention called exclusively for that purpose rather than by the sitting legislature, a democratic idea that John Adams had also proposed as a way of implementing the principle of popular sovereignty. All in all, Jefferson’s prescriptions for the new Virginian republic were an impressive blend of traditional forms and selective reforms. They establish the historically correct, if unorthodox, context for answering the proverbial question: What was Jefferson thinking about on the eve of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence? The answer is indisputable. He was not thinking, as some historians have claimed, about John Locke’s theory of natural rights or Scottish commonsense philosophy. He was thinking about Virginia’s new constitution. 44

An aspect of his thinking proved directly relevant for the task he was about to assume. In his preamble to the first and third drafts of the Virginia constitution, he composed a bill of indictment against George III. One could see glimmerings of these charges against the British monarch in Summary View, then even more explicit accusations in Causes and Necessities. But the lengthy condemnation of the king in his draft constitution extended the list of crimes against colonial rights. It was in effect his penultimate draft for the list of grievances that became the longest section of the Declaration of Independence.

One of the grievances stands out, in part because it dealt with what soon proved to be the most controversial issue during the debate in Congress over the wording of the Declaration, in part because of the difference between what Jefferson wrote for the Virginia constitution in May and what he wrote for the Declaration in June. This is the passage in the Declaration in which Jefferson blamed George III for instigating and perpetuating the slave trade, thereby implying that slavery was an evil institution imposed on the colonists by a corrupt monarch. In the earlier draft for the Virginia constitution, however, he charged George III with “prompting our negroes to rise in arms against us; those very negroes who by an inhuman use of his negative he hath refused us permission to exclude by law.” Here one can see Jefferson juggling two incompatible formulations: One is to blame the king for slavery; the other is to blame him for emancipating the slaves (i.e., Lord Dunmore’s proclamation). It was symptomatic of a deep disjunction in his thinking about slavery that he never reconciled. 45

Another one of the proverbial questions—how or why was Jefferson selected to draft the Declaration?—is also answerable with a recovery of the immediate context. The short answer is that he was the obvious choice on the basis of his past work in the Congress as a draftsman. That was his specialty. The longer answer emerges clearly from the situation that existed in the Congress in June 1776.

Virginia had taken the lead by instructing its delegates on May 15 to propose total and complete American independence from Great Britain. On June 7 Richard Henry Lee moved the resolution “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States. . . .” A debate then ensued over when the vote on Lee’s resolution should occur. The Congress decided to delay a vote until July 1, in deference to delegations that were still divided (i.e., Pennsylvania) and to delegations that lacked clear instructions from their state legislatures (i.e., New York). In the meantime a committee could be working on a document that implemented the Lee resolution. A Virginian presence on the committee was essential, and Jefferson was the most appropriate Virginian, both because of his reputation as a writer and because Lee, the other possible choice, was the author of the resolution before the Congress and presumably would lead the debate in its behalf. 46

The committee convened shortly after it was appointed on June 11. (Besides Adams and Jefferson, it included Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman.) The rest of the committee delegated the drafting to Adams and Jefferson. At this point one can reasonably ask why Adams did not write it himself. This was a question Adams raised with himself countless times over the ensuing years, as the significance of the Declaration grew in the popular imagination and Jefferson’s authorship became his major ticket into the American pantheon. In his autobiography Adams recalled that he delegated the task to Jefferson for several reasons, among them his sense that his own prominence as a leader of the radical faction in Congress for the past two years would subject the draft to greater scrutiny and criticism. But such latter-day recollections only tend to obscure the more elemental fact that no one at the time regarded the drafting of the Declaration as a major responsibility or honor. Adams, like Lee, would be needed to lead the debate on the floor. That was considered the crucial arena. Jefferson was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence, then, in great part because the other eligible authors had more important things to do. 47

Context is absolutely crucial. For all intents and purposes, the decision to declare independence had already been made. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January, had swept through the colonies like a firestorm, destroying any final vestige of loyalty to the British crown. In May the Congress had charged each colony to draft new state constitutions, an explicit act of political independence that Adams always regarded as the decisive move. Most important, the war itself had been raging for more than a year. The bulk of the Congress’s time in fact was occupied with wartime planning and military decisions, as the British fleet was sighted off the coasts of New York and South Carolina and an American expeditionary force to Canada met with humiliating defeat. (One more debacle or major military blunder, and the American war for independence might have been over before the delegates in Philadelphia got around to declaring it started.) Nothing about the scene permitted much confidence or the opportunity to be contemplative. It did not seem to be a propitious moment for literary craftsmanship.

But whether they knew it or not—and there was no earthly way they could have known—the members of the Continental Congress had placed the ideal instrument in the perfect position at precisely the right moment. Throughout the remainder of his long career Jefferson never again experienced a challenge better suited to call forth his best creative energies. The work had to be done alone, isolated from the public debates. It needed to possess an elevated quality that linked American independence to grand and great forces that transcended the immediate political crisis and swept the imagination upward toward a purer and more principled world. Finally, it needed to paint the scene in bright, contrasting colors of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, “ought” and “is” without any of the intermediate hues or lingering doubts. It is difficult to imagine anyone in America better equipped, by disposition and experience, to perform the task as well.

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a matter of a few days—Adams later remembered it took him only “a day or two”—and then showed the draft to Adams and Franklin, later recalling that “they were the two members of whose judgments and amendments I wished most to have the benefit.” They suggested a few minor revisions (i.e., replacing “sacred & undeniable truths” with “self-evident truths”); then the committee placed the document before the Continental Congress on June 28. After Lee’s resolution was debated and passed (July 1–2), the Congress took up the wording of the Declaration; it made several major changes and excised about one-quarter of the text. During the debate Jefferson sat silently and sullenly, regarding each proposed revision as another defacement. Franklin sat next to him and tried to soothe his obvious pain with the story of a sign painter commissioned by a hatter, who kept requesting more concise language for his sign until nothing was left on the sign but a picture of a hat. On July 4 the Congress approved its revised version and the Declaration of Independence was sent to the printer for publication. Jefferson later recalled that it was signed by the members of Congress on that day, but that is almost surely not correct. The parchment copy was signed by most members on August 2. 48

Most of the debate in the Congress and most of the revisions of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration focused on the long bill of indictment against George III, the section that modern readers care about least. When Jefferson much later insisted that he was not striving for “originality of principle or sentiment” but was seeking only to provide an “expression of the American mind,” he was probably referring to this section, which was intended to sum up the past twelve years of colonial opposition to British policy in language designed to make the king responsible for all the trouble. Jefferson had been practicing this list of grievances for more than two years, first in Summary View, then in Causes and Necessities and then in his drafts of the Virginia constitution. “I expected you had . . . exhausted the Subject of Complaint against Geo. 3d. and was at a loss to discover what the Congress would do for one to their Declaration of Independence without copying,” wrote Edmund Pendleton when he first saw the official version, “but find that you have acquitted yourselves very well on that score.” 49

As an elegant, if decidedly one-sided, version of recent Anglo-American history, this section of the Declaration has certainly stood the test of time, providing students of the American Revolution with a concise summary of the constitutional crisis from the colonists’ perspective at the propitious moment. As a reflection of Jefferson’s thinking, however, it is missing three distinctive and distinctively Jeffersonian perspectives on the conflict. When Jefferson wrote back to friends in Virginia, complaining that critics in the Congress had, as one friend put it, “mangled . . . the Manuscript,” these were the three major revisions he most regretted. 50

First, as we noticed earlier, the Congress deleted the long passage blaming George III for waging “cruel war against human nature itself” by establishing slavery in North America; Jefferson also accused the king of blocking colonial efforts to end the slave trade, then “exciting those very people to rise in arms against us . . . by murdering the people on whom he has also obtruded them.” Several complicated and even tortured ideas are struggling for supremacy here. One can surmise that the members of Congress decided to delete it out of sheer bewilderment, since the passage mixes together an implicit moral condemnation of slavery with an explicit condemnation of the British monarch for both starting it and trying to end it.

In his own notes on the debate in Congress Jefferson claimed that the opposition was wholly political. Several southern delegations, especially those of South Carolina and Georgia, opposed any restraint on the importation of slaves, he reported, adding that their “Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” Jefferson’s clear implication is that he was trying to take a principled stand against both slavery and the slave trade but that a majority of delegates were unprepared to go along with him. 51

The truth was much messier. With regard to the trade, Jefferson knew from his experience in the House of Burgesses that many established slaveowners in the Tidewater region favored an end of imports because their own plantations were already well stocked and new arrivals only reduced the value of their own slave populations. Ending the trade in Virginia, in short, was not at all synonymous with ending slavery. With regard to slavery itself, Jefferson’s formulation made great polemic sense but historical and intellectual nonsense. It absolved slaveowners like himself from any responsibility or complicity in the establishment of an institution that was clearly at odds with the values on which the newly independent America was based. Slavery was another one of those vestiges of feudalism foisted upon the liberty-loving colonists by the evil heir to the Norman Conquest. This was complete fiction, of course, but also completely in accord with Jefferson’s urge to preserve the purity of his moral dichotomies and his romantic view of America’s uncontaminated origins. Slavery was the serpent in the garden sent there by a satanic king. But the moral message conveyed by this depiction was not emancipation so much as commiseration. Since the colonists had nothing to do with establishing slavery—they were the unfortunate victims of English barbarism—they could not be blamed for its continuance. This was less a clarion call to end slavery than an invitation to wash one’s hands of the matter. 52

Second, Jefferson tried once again, as he had tried before in Causes and Necessities, to insert his favorite theory of expatriation, claiming that the first settlers came over at their own expense and initiative “unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain.” His obsessive insistence on this theme derived from his devotion to the Saxon myth, which allowed for the neat separation of Whiggish colonists and feudal or absolutist English ministers. The tangled history of imperial relations did not fit very well into these political categories, but Jefferson found it much easier to revise the history (i.e., claiming there had never been any colonial recognition of royal or parliamentary authority) than give up his moral dichotomies. Once again his colleagues in the Continental Congress found his argument excessive. 53

Third, the last excision came toward the very end of Jefferson’s draft. It was a rousingly emotional passage with decidedly sentimental overtones that condemned “our British brethren” for sending over “not only souldiers of our common blood, but Scotch & foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy us.” It went on: “These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and to hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends; but a communication of grandeur & of freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it. The road to happiness & to glory is open to us too. We will tread it apart from them. . . .” This was a remarkable piece of rhetoric that Jefferson apparently regarded as one of his better creations. Even at the end of his life he was bitter about its deletion. “The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many,” he recalled, and therefore “those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence.” 54

What strikes the modern reader is not the timidity of the Continental Congress for excising the passage so much as the melodramatic sentimentalism of Jefferson in composing it. As with the expatriation theory, Jefferson was anxious to depict the separation of the colonies from the British Empire as a decision forced upon the colonists, who are passive victims rather than active agents of revolution. But here the broken bonds are more affective than political. A relationship based on love and trust has been violated, and the betrayed partner, the colonists, is bravely moving forward in life, wounded by the rejection but ready to face alone a glorious future that might otherwise have been shared together. This is a highly idealized and starkly sentimental rendering of how and why emotional separations happen, a projection onto the imperial crisis of the romantic innocence Jefferson had displayed in his adolescent encounters with young women, an all-or-nothing-at-all mentality that the other delegates found inappropriate for a state paper purporting to convey more sense than sensibility.


THE MOST FAMOUS section of the Declaration, which has become the most quoted statement of human rights in recorded history as well as the most eloquent justification of revolution on behalf of them, went through the Continental Congress without comment and with only one very minor change. These are, in all probability, the best-known fifty-eight words in American history: “We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain [inherent and] inalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This is the seminal statement of the American Creed, the closest approximation to political poetry every produced in American culture. In the nineteenth century Abraham Lincoln, who also knew how to change history with words, articulated with characteristic eloquence the quasi-religious view of Jefferson as the original American oracle: “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecaste, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” The entire history of liberal reform in America can be written as a process of discovery, within Jefferson’s words, of a spiritually sanctioned mandate for ending slavery, providing the rights of citizenship to blacks and women, justifying welfare programs for the poor and expanding individual freedoms. 55

No serious student of either Jefferson or the Declaration of Independence has ever claimed that he foresaw all or even most of the ideological consequences of what he wrote. But the effort to explain what was in his head has spawned almost as many interpretations as the words themselves have generated political movements. Jefferson himself was accused of plagiarism by enemies or jealous friends on so many occasions throughout his career that he developed a standard reply. “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing,” he explained, he drew his ideas from “the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” 56

This is an ingeniously double-edged explanation, for it simultaneously disavows any claims to originality and yet insists that he depended upon no specific texts or sources. The image it conjures up is that of a medium, sitting alone at the writing desk and making himself into an instrument for the accumulated wisdom and “harmonizing sentiments” of the ages. It is only a short step from this image to Lincoln’s vision of Jefferson as oracle or prophet, receiving the message from the gods and sending it on to us and then to the ages. Given the creedal character of the natural rights section of the Declaration, several generations of American interpreters have felt the irresistible impulse to bathe the scene in speckled light and cloudy mist, thereby implying that efforts to dispel the veil of mystery represent some vague combination of sacrilege and treason.

Any serious attempt to pierce through this veil must begin by recovering the specific conditions inside that room on Market and Seventh streets in June 1776. Even if we take Jefferson at his word, that he did not copy sections of the Declaration from any particular books, he almost surely had with him copies of his own previous writings, to include Summary View, Causes and Necessities and his three drafts of the Virginia constitution. This is not to accuse him of plagiarism, unless one wishes to argue that an author can plagiarize himself. It is to say that virtually all the ideas found in the Declaration and much of the specific language, especially the grievances against George III, had already found expression in those earlier writings.

Recall the context. The Congress is being overwhelmed with military reports of imminent American defeat in New York and Canada. The full Congress is in session six days a week, and committees are meeting throughout the evenings. The obvious practical course for Jefferson to take was to rework his previous drafts on the same general theme. While it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that the creative process that produced the Declaration was a cut-and-paste job, it strains credulity and common sense to the breaking point to believe that Jefferson did not have these items at his elbow and draw liberally from them when drafting the Declaration.

His obvious preoccupation with the ongoing events at the Virginia convention, which was drafting the Virginia constitution at just this time, is also crucial to remember. Throughout late May and early June couriers moved back and forth between Williamsburg and Philadelphia, carrying Jefferson’s drafts for a new constitution to the convention and reports on the debate there to the Continental Congress. On June 12 the Virginians unanimously adopted a preamble drafted by George Mason that contained these words: “All men are created equally free and independent and have certain inherent and natural rights . . . , among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” The Pennsylvania Gazette published Mason’s words the same day they were adopted in Williamsburg. Since Jefferson’s version of the same thought was drafted sometime that following week, and since we know that he regarded the unfolding events in Virginia as more significant than what was occurring in Philadelphia and that he was being kept abreast by courier, it also strains credulity to deny the influence of Mason’s language on his own. 57

While that explains the felicitous phrase “pursuit of happiness,” which Mason himself could have picked up from several English and American sources, it does not explain Jefferson’s much-debated deletion of “property,” the conventional third right memorialized in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. He made that choice on his own. He was probably aware that Mason’s language had generated spirited opposition from a segment of the planter class in Virginia who worried that it implied a repudiation of slavery; they insisted on an amendment that excluded slaves by adding the qualifying clause “when they enter into a state of society.” All this suggests that Jefferson was probably aware of the contradiction between his own version of the natural rights philosophy and the institution of slavery. By dropping any reference to “property” he blurred that contradiction. This helps answer the intriguing question of why no debate over the issue occurred in the Continental Congress, as it did in the Virginia convention. Perhaps the debate over the slave trade provision also served that purpose. 58

Beyond the question of immediate influences on Jefferson’s choice of words and his way of framing the case for independence, however, lies the more murky question of the long-term influences on his political thinking. Granted that his own earlier writings and drafts of the Virginia constitution almost certainly lay strewn across his lap and writing desk, where did the ideas contained in those documents come from? Granted that we know beyond a reasonable doubt what Jefferson was looking at, that he and the other delegates in the Congress were under enormous pressure to manage the ongoing war as military disaster loomed in Canada and New York, so he had little time to do more than recycle his previous writings, what core of ideas was already fixed in his head?

The available answers fall into two primary headings, each argued persuasively by prominent scholars and each finding the seminal source of Jefferson’s political thought in particular books. The older and still more venerable interpretation locates the intellectual wellspring in John Locke. Even during Jefferson’s lifetime several commentators, usually intending to question his originality, noted that the doctrine of natural rights and the corollary endorsement of rightful revolution came straight out of Locke’s Second Treatise. Richard Henry Lee, for example, claimed that Jefferson had merely “copied from Locke’s treatise on government.” Several conclusions followed naturally from the Lockean premise, the chief ones being that Jeffersonian thought was inherently liberal and individualistic and, despite the substitution of “pursuit of happiness” for “property,” fundamentally compatible with America’s emerging capitalistic mentality. 59

The second and more recent interpretive tradition locates the source of Jefferson’s thinking in the Scottish Enlightenment, especially the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson. The key insight here is that Jefferson’s belief in the natural equality of man derived primarily from Hutcheson’s doctrine of the “moral sense,” a faculty inherent in all human beings that no mere government could violate. Moreover, the Scottish school of thought linked Jefferson to a more communal or collectivistic tradition that was at odds with Lockean liberalism and therefore incompatible with unbridled individualism, especially the sort of individualism associated with predatory behavior in the marketplace. 60

There is, in fact, a third most recent and most novel interpretation, at once brilliant and bizarre, that operates from the premise that Jefferson intended the Declaration to be read aloud or performed. This claim is based on the discovery that his final draft was punctuated by a series of quotation marks designed to guide the reading of the document in order to enhance its dramatic effect. This discovery has led to the conclusion that Jefferson was influenced by the new books on rhetoric by such English authors as James Burgh and Thomas Sheridan, in which spoken language was thought to derive its power by playing on the unconscious emotions of the audience. The secret power of the Declaration, so this argument goes, derives from Jefferson’s self-conscious orchestration of language, informed by the new rhetoric, which overrides all contradictions (i.e., slavery and human equality; individualism and community) in a kind of verbal symphony that still plays on within American political culture. 61

Each of these interpretations offers valuable insights into the intellectual sources of Jefferson’s thinking as he sat down to write the Declaration. Clearly, he knew his Locke, though his favorite Lockean treatise was not the one on government but the Essay on Human Understanding. That said, the fundamental claim that revolution is justified if the existent rulers demonstrate systematic disregard for the rights of their subjects certainly originated with Locke. Jefferson may have gotten his specific language from George Mason, but both men knew whom they were paraphrasing. Just as clearly, Jefferson believed that the distinguishing feature that made human beings fully human, and in that sense equal, was the moral sense. Whether he developed that belief by reading Hutcheson or any of the other members of the Scottish school or from his own personal observation of human behavior is ultimately unknowable and not terribly important.

The claim that Jefferson meant the Declaration to be read aloud is more difficult to swallow. A simpler explanation of his unusual punctuation marks would be that he was worried that he might be required to read the document aloud when the committee presented it to the Congress on June 28, so he inserted oratorical guides for his delivery, not trusting his own famously inadequate speaking ability. (We really don’t know whether he himself read it or whether it was read by the secretary of the Congress.) But the recognition that the Declaration plays on the sentiments of readers and listeners, that its underlying tones and rhythms operate in mysterious ways to win assent despite logical contradictions and disjunctions, is a key insight very much worth pondering.

The central problem with all these explanations, however, is that they make Jefferson’s thinking an exclusive function of books. True, he read voraciously as a young man, took notes on his reading and left a comprehensive list of the books in his library. Since we know so much about his reading habits, and so little about other aspects of his early life (the Shadwell fire, again), the temptation to make an implicit connection between his ideas and his books is irresistible. Then once the connection is made with, say, Locke or Hutcheson, one can conveniently talk about particular texts as if one were talking about Jefferson’s mind. This is a long-standing scholarly tradition—one might call it the scholarly version of poetic license—that depends on the unspoken assumption that what one thinks is largely or entirely a product of what one reads. 62

In Jefferson’s case, it is a very questionable assumption. In the specific case of the natural rights section of the Declaration, it sends us baying down literary trails after false scents of English or Scottish authors, while the object of the hunt sits squarely before us. In all his previous publications the young Thomas Jefferson had demonstrated a strong affinity for and deep attachment to visions of the ideal society. He found it in various locations “back there” in the past: the forests of Saxony; England before the Norman Conquest; the American colonies before the French and Indian War. (Here his previous reading clearly did have a discernible influence, though the relevant books were the Whig histories and the Real Whig writings, but they had been so thoroughly digested that their themes and categories blended imperceptibly into Jefferson’s cast of mind.) His several arguments for American independence all were shaped around a central motif, in which the imperfect and inadequate present was contrasted with a perfect and pure future, achievable once the sources of corruption were eliminated. His mind instinctively created dichotomies and derived its moral energy from juxtaposing the privileged side of any case or cause with the contaminated side. While his language was often colorful, the underlying message was nearly always painted in black and white.

The vision he projected in the natural rights section of the Declaration, then, represented yet another formulation of the Jeffersonian imagination. The specific form of the vision undoubtedly drew upon language Locke had used to describe the putative conditions of society before governments were established. But the urge to embrace such an ideal society came from deep inside Jefferson himself. It was the vision of a young man projecting his personal cravings for a world in which all behavior was voluntary and therefore all coercion unnecessary, where independence and equality never collided, where the sources of all authority were invisible because they had already been internalized. Efforts on the part of scholars to determine whether Jefferson’s prescriptive society was fundamentally individualistic or communal can never reach closure, because within the Jeffersonian utopia such choices do not need to be made. They reconcile themselves naturally.

Though indebted to Locke, Jefferson’s political vision was more radical than liberal, driven as it was by a youthful romanticism unwilling to negotiate its high standards with an imperfect world. One of the reasons why European commentators on American politics have found American expectations so excessive and American political thinking in general so beguilingly innocent is that Jefferson provided a sanction for youthful hopes and illusions, planted squarely in what turned out to be the founding document of the American republic. The American dream, then, is just that, the Jeffersonian dream writ large.


SOON AFTER HE HAD finished drafting the Declaration, but before the debate on it began in the Continental Congress, Jefferson expressed the strong desire to escape from Philadelphia. “I am sorry,” he wrote Edmund Pendleton, that “the situation of my domestic affairs renders it indispensably necessary that I should sollicit the substitution of some other person here,” explaining in his indirect way that the “delicacy of the house will not require me to enter minutely into the private causes which render this necessary.” The “private causes” were unquestionably related to Martha’s health; she was pregnant for the third time in six years and miscarried that summer. “For god’s sake, for your country’s sake, and for my sake,” he wrote to Richard Henry Lee, “I am under a sacred obligation to go home.” It would have been perfectly in keeping with his character to draft the Declaration, then absent himself from the debate over its content, especially when the center of his private world at Monticello was in danger. 63

But he was needed in Philadelphia to preserve a quorum for the Virginia delegation, which was filled with men who preferred to attend the constitutional debates in Williamsburg. So Jefferson did his duty, remaining at his post throughout the summer. He made no contribution to the debates in the Congress over prospective foreign alliances or the shape of the national government under the Articles of Confederation, but he took extensive notes on what others said that became the fullest historical record of those exchanges. Within the context of the moment these issues loomed larger than the passage of the Declaration, which was signed on parchment by all members present on August 2. One of the many ironies of the signing is that Jefferson was available to affix his name to the document that became the basis for his fame only because he had been forced, against his will, to sustain Virginia’s official presence in the Congress.

For his part, Jefferson went out of his way to disavow responsibility for the version of the Declaration passed by the Congress. His own version, he explained to friends back in Virginia, had been badly treated (the operative word was “mangled”); he devoted considerable energy to copying out his own draft, with the revisions made by the Congress inserted in the margins and the deleted sections restored. He needed to differentiate between his language and the published version being circulated throughout the country, claiming that the Congress had watered down the purity of his message in order to appease the faint of heart, who still hoped for reconciliation with England. Although this was hardly the case—the revisions of his draft were driven less by any desire to compromise than to clarify—Jefferson maintained a wounded sense of betrayal by the Congress throughout the remainder of his life. 64

His friends in Virginia, perhaps recognizing he needed reassurance, wrote back to him in a commiserative tone. “I am also obliged by your Original Declaration of Independence,” explained Edmund Pendleton, “which I find your brethren have treated as they did your Manifesto last summer [i.e., Causes and Necessities], altered it much for the worse; their hopes of a Reconciliation might restrain them from plain truths then, but what could cramp them now?” Richard Henry Lee also tried to soothe his young friend’s wounded pride by agreeing that the Jeffersonian draft was much better but concluded that “the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen.” Jefferson’s hypersensitivity to criticism precluded the possibility of a more detached perspective like Lee’s. He contented himself with the preservation, for the historical record, of the difference between his own words and the official version. 65

His sensitivity extended to matters beyond drafts of the Declaration. Word reached him in July about rumors circulating in Williamsburg that his support for independence was only lukewarm, a misguided charge that was probably a function of his seclusion at Monticello in the spring when other Virginian leaders were taking the field against Dunmore. “It is a painful situation to be 300 miles from one’s country,” he complained to his old friend William Fleming, “and thereby open to secret assassination without a possibility of self-defence.” Then, later in the month, he heard that reports were circulating within the Virginia leadership that he harbored dangerously radical ideas about the inherent wisdom of the people-at-large, reports that were possibly based on second thoughts within the planter class of his language in the natural rights section of the Declaration. He tried to quash such rumors by writing Edmund Pendleton, who had succeeded the recently deceased Peyton Randolph as the presiding presence of the Tidewater elite, assuring him that “the fantastical idea of virtue and the public good being a sufficient security of the state . . . , which you have heard insisted upon by some, I assure you was never mine.” He reminded Pendleton that none of his drafts of the Virginia constitution called for direct election of the upper house or senate: “I have ever observed that a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom” and that the “first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous.” 66

Then there was the charge that he had no stomach for war and had gone soft on the question of military action against the Indians allied with the British. He wrote home to assure friends this too was slander. He favored an all-out campaign against the Indians pursued without mercy: “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side the Mississippi.” 67

These were emphatic overstatements of his own considerably less belligerent and more trusting convictions. He felt forced into making them in order to answer his critics. His statements are less a measure of what he really thought than a symptom of how vulnerable he felt. He saw himself as an honorable young man who had grudgingly but voluntarily agreed to do his duty by remaining in Philadelphia despite compelling personal reasons to return home. Listening to the delegates in the Continental Congress while they questioned and revised and deleted his wording of the Declaration was bad enough. But then to be whipsawed by rumormongering enemies back in Virginia, accused of being either a tepid or excessive supporter of the revolutionary cause, this was unbearable.

Later in his career Jefferson learned to suffer in silence and to present a placid, impenetrable facade to his critics. John Adams commented admiringly on the mature Jefferson’s capacity to remain silent and unperturbed whenever he was the target of innuendo or of the inevitable jealousies generated by ambitious men playing politics. (Adams lamented his own failure to perfect the technique, which he called “the wisdom of taciturnity,” admitting that his own inveterate tendency was to erupt like a volcano and fondly hope to eliminate his critics in a lava flow.) But young Jefferson had not yet perfected the technique either. The enigmatic masks he eventually learned to wear were essential additions to his public personality precisely because he was by nature thin-skinned and took all criticism personally. Fate had selected him to play a prominent role in what posterity came to regard as the most propitious moment in American history. But for a young man of his tender and vulnerable disposition, making history came at an unacceptable personal cost. 68

In September 1776 Jefferson’s prayers were answered when Richard Henry Lee came up from Virginia to replace him in Philadelphia. His exit was less grand but more speedy than his entrance more than a year earlier. Only Jupiter accompanied him this time, and if Jefferson followed his customary habit whenever in a hurry, he drove the horses of his phaeton himself. He could not wait to get back to Martha and Monticello. A month later, when John Hancock wrote in behalf of the Continental Congress asking him to join Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane as a member of the American commission to France, Jefferson sent his regrets, explaining that personal considerations “compel me to ask leave to decline a service so honorable and at the same time so important to the American cause.” He was played out. Both his pride and his vulnerable core of personal feelings had been wounded. He needed time to heal. 69


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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