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Originally published in 1898, Thomas Jefferson is a classic biography of the man who so deeply ingrained the republican ideals of the Founding Fathers into American society.As such, it is the kind of work that avoids the trap of noticing everything that went unnoticed in the past while failing to notice all that the past deemed notable. Immediately lauded by the critics when it was first published, John T. Morse's biography of Jefferson was embraced by the reading public.Thomas Jefferson is a biography of the man who so deeply ingrained the republican ideals of the Founding Fathers into American society. As such, it is the kind of work that avoids the trap of noticing everything that went unnoticed in the past while failing to notice all that the past deemed notable. Immediately lauded by the critics when it was first published, John T. Morse's biography of Jefferson was embraced by the reading public.Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was an American Founding Father who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and later served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809.Previously, he was elected the second Vice President of the United States, serving under John Adams from 1797 to 1801.A proponent of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights motivating American colonists to break from Great Britain and form a new nation, he produced formative documents and decisions at both the state and national level.
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John T. Morse
Copyright © John T. Morse
Thomas Jefferson: American Statesman
Arcadia Press 2017
Little more than a century ago a civilized nation without an aristocracy was a pitiful spectacle scarcely to be witnessed in the world. The American colonists, having brought no dukes and barons with them to the rugged wilderness, fell in some sort under a moral compulsion to set up an imitation of the genuine creatures, and as their, best makeshift in the emergency they ennobled in a kind of local fashion the richer Virginian planters. These gentlemen were not without many qualifications for playing the agreeable part assigned to them; they gambled recklessly over cards and at the horse-racings and cock-fightings which formed their chief pleasures; they caroused to excess at taverns and at each other’s houses; they were very extravagant, very lazy, very arrogant, and fully persuaded of their superiority over their fellows, whom they felt it their duty and their privilege to direct and govern; they had large landed estates and preserved the custom of entailing them in favor of eldest sons; they were great genealogists, and steeped in family pride; they occupied houses which were very capacious and noted for unlimited hospitality, but which were also ill-kept and barren; they were fond of field-sports and were admirable horsemen; they respected the code of honor and quarreled and let blood as gentlemen should; they were generous, courageous and high-spirited; a few of them were liberally educated and well-read. We all know that, when the days of trial came, the best of them were little inferior to the best men whose names are to be found in the history of any people in the world; though when one studies the antecedents and social surroundings whence these noble figures emerged, it seems as if for once men had gathered grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles.
Rather upon the outskirts than actually within the sacred limits of this charmed circle, Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743.
The first American Jefferson was dimly supposed to have immigrated from Snowdon, in Wales; such at least was the family “tradition;” while the only thing certainly to be predicated concerning him is that he was one of the earliest settlers, having arrived in Virginia before the Mayflower had brought the first cargo of Puritans to the New England coast. Peter Jefferson, the father of Thomas, gave the family its first impetus on the road towards worldly success. He was a man of superb physique and of correspondingly vigorous intellect and enterprising temper. In early life he became very intimate with William Randolph of Tuckahoe; he “patented” in the wilderness a thousand acres of land adjoining the larger estate of Randolph, bought from his friend four hundred acres more, paying therefor the liberal price of “Henry Weatherbourne’s biggest bowl of arrack punch,” as is jovially nominated in the deed; and further cemented the alliance by marrying William’s cousin, Jane Randolph, in 1738. The distinction which this infusion of patrician blood brought to the commoner Jeffersonian stream was afterwards slightingly referred to by Thomas Jefferson, who said, with a characteristic democratic sneer, that his mother’s family traced “their pedigree far back in England and Scotland, to which let everyone ascribe the faith and merit he chooses.”
Peter Jefferson’s plantation, or more properly his farm, for it seems to have been largely devoted to the culture of wheat, lay on the Rivanna near its junction with the James, including a large extent of plain and some of the lower shoulders or spurs of the mountains known as the Southwest Range. He named it Shadwell, after the parish in London where his wife had been born; among its hills was that of Monticello, upon which in after years Thomas Jefferson built his house. Peter was colonel of his county and a member of the House of Burgesses, apparently a man of rising note in the colony. But in August, 1757, in the fiftieth year of what seemed a singularly vigorous life, he suddenly died, leaving Thomas only fourteen years old, with the advantages, however, of a comfortable property and an excellent family connection on the mother’s side, so that it would be his own fault if he should not prosper well in the world.
Jefferson appears to have been sensibly brought up, getting as good an education as was possible in Virginia and paying also due regard to his physical training. He grew to be a slender and sinewy, or as some preferred to say, a thin and raw-boned young man, six feet two and one half inches tall, with hair variously reported as red, reddish, and sandy, and with eyes mixed of gray and hazel. Certainly he was not handsome, and in order to establish his social attractiveness his friends fall back on “his countenance, so highly expressive of intelligence and benevolence,” and upon his “fluent and sensible conversation” intermingled with a “vein of pleasantry.” He is said to have improved in appearance as he grew older, and to have become “a very good-looking man in middle age, and quite a handsome old man.” He was athletic, fond of shooting, and a skillful and daring horseman even for a Virginian. He early developed a strong taste for music and fiddled assiduously for many years. By his own desire he entered William and Mary College in 1760 at the age of seventeen. He was now secure of every advantage possible for a young Virginian. The college was at Williamsburg, then the capital of the colony, and his relationship with the Randolphs made him free of the best houses. A Scotch doctor, William Small, was Professor of Mathematics and temporarily also of Philosophy. He appears to have had a happy gift of instruction, and to have fired the mind of his pupil with a great zeal for learning. Jefferson afterward even said that the presence of this gentleman at the University was “what probably fixed the destinies of my life.”
If we may take Jefferson’s own word for it. he habitually studied, during his second collegiate year, fifteen hours a day, and for his only exercise ran, at twilight, a mile out of the city and back again. Long afterward, in 1808, he wrote to a grandson a sketch of this period of his life, composed in his moral and didactic vein; in it he draws a beautiful picture of his own precocious and unnatural virtue, and is himself obliged to gaze in surprise upon one so young and yet so good amid crowding temptations. Without fully sharing in this generous admiration, we must not doubt that he was sufficiently studious and sensible, for he had a natural thirst for information and he always afterward appeared a broadly educated man. His preference was for mathematics and natural philosophy, studies which he deemed “so peculiarly engaging and delightful as would induce everyone to wish an acquaintance with them.” He was fond also of classics, and indeed eschewed with positive distaste no branch of study save only ethics and metaphysics. At these he sneered, and actually once had the courage to say that it was “lost time” to attend lectures on moral philosophy, since “he who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science.” Certainly morals never became in his mind one of the exact sciences, and the heretical notion of his youth remained the conviction of his mature years. He appears to have read quite extensively, with sound selection and liberal taste, among the acknowledged classics in Greek, Latin, and English literature, and to some extent also in French and Italian. But novels he never fancied and rarely touched at any period of his life, though not by reason of a severe taste, since for a long while he was nothing less than infatuated with the bombast of Ossian.
After graduation, Jefferson read law in the office of George Wythe, a gentleman whose genial social qualities and high professional attainments are attested by the friendly allusions of many eminent contemporaries. His zeal in labor still continued, and again the story is told that he habitually reached the measure of fifteen hours of study daily. When he was about twenty-one years old, Jefferson drew up a plan of study and reading for a young friend. Before eight o’clock in the morning this poor fellow was to devote himself to “physical studies”; eight to twelve o’clock, law; twelve to one, politics; afternoon, history; “dark to bedtime,” literature, oratory, etc., etc. Yet there were cakes and ale in those days, young girls and dancing at the Raleigh tavern, cards and horses; and the young Virginians had their full share of all these good things. Probably the fifteen hours stint, as a strictly regular daily allowance, is fabulous. With Professor Small and Mr. Wythe the young student formed a “partie quarrée” at the “palace” of Francis Fauquier, then the gay, agreeable, accomplished, free-thinking, gambling Governor of Virginia. The four habitually dined together in spite of the fifteen-hour rule, and it betokens no small degree of intellectual maturity on the part of Jefferson, that while a mere college lad he was the selected companion of three such gentlemen. Fortunately his sound common sense protected him from the dangerous elements in the association.
A few letters written by Jefferson at this time to his friend John Page, a member of the well-known Virginian family of that name and himself afterward Governor of Virginia, have been preserved. Without showing much brilliancy, they abound in labored attempts at humor and are thickly sown with fragments from the classics and simple bits of original Latinity. The chief burden of them all is the girls, whose faces, it is to be hoped, were prettier than their names, — Sukey Potter, Judy Burwell, and the like. One of them, “Belinda,” as he called her, he treated in a rather peculiar way. He told her that he loved her, but did not desire at present to engage himself, since he wished to go to Europe for an indefinite period; but he said that on his return, of course with unchanged affections, he would finally and openly commit himself. To this not very ardent proposition the lady naturally said “No”, and soon wedded another. The “laggard in love” wrote a despairing letter or two, which fail to bring tears to the reader’s eyes; remained in comfortable bachelorhood a few short years, and then gave his hand, and doubtless also in all warmth and sincerity his heart, to the young widow of Bathurst Skelton. His marriage took place January 1, 1772. If the accounts of gallant chroniclers may be trusted, the bride had every qualification which can make woman attractive; an exquisite feminine beauty, grace of manners, loveliness of disposition, rare cleverness, and many accomplishments. Furthermore, her father, John Wayles, a rich lawyer, considerately died about sixteen months after the marriage, and so caused a handsome addition to Jefferson’s property.
Jefferson, however, had no need to marry for money. Though not very rich, he was well off and was rapidly multiplying his assets. At the time of his marriage he had increased his patrimony so that 1,900 acres had swelled by purchases to 5,000 acres, and thirty slaves had increased to fifty-two. He was getting considerably upwards of $3,000 a year from his profession, and $2,000 from his farm. This made a very good income in those days in Virginia. The evidence is abundant that he was thrifty, industrious, and successful. He seemed like one destined to accumulate wealth, but he never had a fair opportunity to show his capacity in this direction, since he maintained a resolve not to better his fortunes while in public life.
His career at the bar began in 1767, when he was only twenty-four years old, and closed in 1774. If he had only been getting fairly into business when he left the profession, he would have had little right to complain. But apparently he had stepped at once into an excellent practice, and either the chief occupation of all Virginians was litigation, or else he must have enjoyed exceptional good fortune. In the first year he had sixty eight cases in the “general court,” in the next year one hundred and fifteen, in the third year one hundred and ninety-eight. Of causes before inferior tribunals no record was kept. Yet Mr. Randall tells us that he was chiefly an “office-lawyer,” for that a husky weakness of the voice prevented him from becoming very successful as an advocate.
The farming, though it contributed the smaller fraction of his income, was the calling which throughout life he loved with an inborn fondness not to be quenched by all the cares and interests of a public career, and his notebooks attest the unresting interest which he brought to it in all times and places. A striking paper, unfortunately incomplete and undated, is published in the first volume of his works. “I sometimes ask myself,” he writes, “whether my country is the better for my having lived at all … I have been the instrument of doing the following things.” Then are enumerated such matters as the disestablishment of the state church in Virginia, the putting an end to entails, the prohibition of the importation of slaves, also the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, and in the same not very long list, cheek by jowl with these momentous achievements, follows the importation of olive plants from Marseilles into South Carolina and Georgia, and of heavy upland rice from Africa into the same States, in the hope that it might supersede the culture of the wet rice so pestilential in the summer. “The greatest service,” he comments, “which can be rendered to any country is, to add a useful plant to its culture, especially a bread grain; next in value to bread is oil.” At another time he wrote: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue … Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age or nation has furnished an example … Generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of the husbandmen is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure the degree of its corruption.” From these premises he draws the conclusion that it is an error to attract artificers or mechanics from foreign parts into this country. It will be better and more wholesome, he says, to leave them in their European workshops and “carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles.”
This would hardly pass nowadays for sound political economy; but it is an excellent sample of the simple impractical form into which Jefferson’s reflections were apt to develop when the mood of dreamy virtue was upon him. During an inroad of yellow fever he found “consolation” in the reflection that Providence had so ordered things “that most evils are the means of producing some good. The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation, and I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” Nor did wider experience of the world cause him to change his views. In 1785 he wrote from Paris: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous; and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds … I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.” “Were I to indulge in my own theory,” he again says, “I should wish them (the States) to practice neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand with respect to Europe precisely on the footing of China.”
For his own personal part, Jefferson was always an enthusiast in agriculture. He was never too busy to find time to note the dates of the planting and the ripening of his vegetables and fruits. He left behind him a table enumerating thirty-seven esculents, and showing the earliest date of the appearance of each one of them in the Washington market in each of eight successive years. He had ever a quick observation and a keen intelligence ready for every fragment of new knowledge or hint of a useful invention in the way of field work. All through his busy official life, abroad and at home, he appears ceaselessly to have one eye on the soil and one ear open to its cultivators; he is always comparing varying methods and results, sending new seeds hither and thither, making suggestions, trying experiments, till, in the presence of his enterprise and activity, one begins to think that the stagnating character so commonly attributed to the Virginian planters must be fabulous. For, on the contrary, so far was his temperament removed from the conservatism of the Anglo-Saxon race that often he seemed to take the fact that a thing had never been done as a sufficient reason for doing it.
All his tendencies were utilitarian. Though strangely devoid of any appreciation of fiction in literature, yet he had a powerful imagination, which ranged wholly in the unromantic domain of the useful, and ran riot in schemes for conferring practical benefits on mankind. He betrayed the same traits in agriculture and in politics. In both he was often a dreamer, but his dreams concerned the daily affairs of his fellow men, and his life was devoted to reducing his idealities to realities. It was largely this sanguine taste for novelty, this dash of the imaginative element, flavoring all his projects and doctrines, which made them attractive to the multitude, who, finding present facts to be for the most part hard and uninviting, are ever prone to be pleased with propositions for variety.
Only once, under the combined influences of Ossian, youth, and love, we find his fancy roving in a melodramatic direction. He turns then for a while from absorbing calculations of the amount of work which a man can do with a one-wheeled barrow and the amount he can do with a two-wheeled barrow, the number and cost of the nails required for a certain length of paling, the amount of lime, or limestone, required for a perch of stone wall, and in place of these useful computations he lays plans for ornamental work. He will “choose out for a burying place some unfrequented vale in the park,” wherein a bubbling brook alone shall break the stillness, while around shall be “ancient and venerable oaks” interspersed with “gloomy evergreens.” In the center shall be a “small gothic temple of antique appearance.” He will “appropriate one half to the use of his family,” the other, with an odd manifestation of Virginian hospitality, to the use of “strangers,” servants, etc. There shall be “pedestals, with urns and proper inscriptions” and a “pyramid of the rough rockstone” over the “grave of a favorite and faithful servant.” There will be, of course, a grotto, “spangled with translucent pebbles and beautiful shells,” with an ever trickling stream, a mossy couch, a figure of a sleeping nymph, and appropriate mottoes in English and Latin. It is needless to say that these idle fancies seem never to have been seriously taken in hand. More important and engrossing work than the preparation of an enticing grave-yard was forthwith to claim Jefferson’s attention.
About the time when he entered college, Jefferson made the acquaintance of Patrick Henry, then a rather unprosperous, hilarious, unknown young countryman, just admitted to the bar, though profoundly ignorant of law. An intimacy sprang up between them, and when Henry became a member of the House of Burgesses he often shared Jefferson’s chambers at Williamsburg. From them he went, in May, 1765, to utter that ringing speech against taxation without representation which made him for a time foremost among Virginian patriots. In the doorway of the hall stood Jefferson, an entranced listener, thinking that Henry spoke “as Homer wrote.” The magnetic influence of this brilliant friend would have transformed a more loyally disposed youth than Jefferson into an arrant rebel. But no influence was needed for this purpose; Jefferson was by nature a bold and free thinker, wanting rather ballast than canvas. As he watched the course of public events in those years when the germs of the Revolution were swelling and quickening in the land, all his sympathies were warmly enlisted with the party of resistance. By the year 1768, when the advent of a new governor made necessary the election of a new House of Burgesses, he already craved the opportunity to take an active part in affairs, and at once offered himself as a candidate for Albemarle County. He kept open house, distributed limitless punch, stood by the polls, politely bowing to every voter who named him, all according to the Virginian fashion of the day, and had the good fortune, by these meritorious efforts, to win success. On May 11, 1769, he took his seat. Lord Botetourt delivered his quasi-royal speech, and Jefferson drew the resolutions constituting the basis of the reply; but afterward, being deputed to draw the reply itself, he suffered the serious mortification of having his document rejected. On the third day the Burgesses passed another batch of resolutions, so odiously like a Bill of Rights that the Governor, much perturbed in his loyal mind, dissolved them at once. The next day they eked out this brief term of service by meeting in the “Apollo,” or long room of the Raleigh tavern, where eighty-eight of them, of whom Jefferson was one, formed a non-importation league as against British merchandise. All the signers of this document were at once reelected by their constituents.
In March, 1773, the Burgesses again came together in no good humor. The destruction of the Gaspee in Narragansett Bay had led to a draconic act of Parliament whereby any colonist, destroying so much as “the button of a mariner’s coat,” might be carried to England for trial and punished with death. Upon the assembling of the Burgesses, Jefferson and some five or six others, “not thinking our old and leading members up to the point of forwardness and zeal which the times required,” met privately in consultation. The offspring of their conference was a standing committee charged to correspond with like committees which the sister colonies were invited to appoint. An idle controversy has arisen as to whether Massachusetts or Virginia was first to devise this system of correspondence. Jefferson long afterward averred that Virginia was the earlier, and the evidence favors the substantial correctness of his statement; for, though Massachusetts had suggested the idea some two years before, she had not pushed it, and the suggestion, known to few, had been forgotten by all. It naturally resulted from this proceeding that the Burgesses were at once dissolved by the Earl of Dunmore. But the committee met on the next day and issued their circular of invitation.
A year later, in the spring of 1774, news of the Boston Port Bill came while the Burgesses were in session. Again Jefferson and some half dozen more, feeling that “the lead in the House on these subjects [should] no longer be left with the old members,” and agreeing that they “must boldly take an unequivocal stand in the line with Massachusetts,” met in secret to devise proper measures. They determined to appoint a day of fasting and prayer, and in the House they succeeded in carrying a resolution to that effect. Again the Governor dissolved them; again they went over to the “Apollo,” and again passed there most disloyal resolutions. Among these was one requesting the Committee of Correspondence to consult the other colonies on the expediency of holding annually a general Congress; also another, for the meeting of representatives from the counties of Virginia in convention at Williamsburg on August 1. The freeholders of Albemarle elected Jefferson again a Burgess, and also a deputy to this Convention.
Jefferson started to attend the meeting of the Convention, but upon the road was taken so ill with a dysentery that he could not go on. He therefore forwarded a draft of instructions, such as he hoped to see given by that body to the delegates whom it was to send to the General Congress of the colonies. One copy of this document was sent to Patrick Henry, who, however, “communicated it to nobody;” perhaps, says Jefferson, “because he disapproved the ground taken,” perhaps “because he was too lazy to read it.” Another copy was sent with better fortune to Peyton Randolph, President of the Convention. It was laid by him upon the table, was read by the members, and was so well liked that it was printed in pamphlet form under the title of “A Summary View of the Rights of British America;” in this shape it was sent over to Great Britain, was there “taken up by the opposition, interpolated a little by Mr. Burke,” and then extensively circulated, running “rapidly through several editions.”
Naturally that was the era of manifestoes in the colonies, and many pens were busy preparing documents, public and private, famous and neglected, but nearly all sound, spirited, generalizing, and declamatory. Jefferson’s instructions did not wholly escape the prevalent faults, and had their share of rodomontade about the rights of freemen and the oppressions of monarchs. But these were slight blemishes in a paper singularly radical, audacious, and well argued. The migration of the “Saxon ancestors” of the present English people, he said, had been made “in like manner with that of the British immigrants to the American colonies.”
“Nor was ever any claim of superiority or dependence asserted over [the English] by that Mother Country from which they had migrated; and were such a claim made, it is believed his Majesty’s subjects in Great Britain have too firm a feeling of the rights derived to them from their ancestors, to bow down the sovereignty of their State before such visionary pretensions. And it is thought that no circumstance has occurred to distinguish materially the British from the Saxon emigration. America was conquered and her settlements made and firmly established at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public.”
This was laying the axe at the very root of the tree with tolerable force; and more blows of the same sort followed. The connection undeniably existing between the colonies and the mother country was reduced to a minimum by an ingenious explanation. The emigrants, Jefferson said, had “thought proper” to “continue their union with England” “by submitting themselves to the same sovereign,” who was a “central link” or “mediatory power” between “the several parts of the Empire,” so that “the relation between Great Britain and these colonies was exactly the same as that of England and Scotland after the accession of James and until the union, and the same as her present relations with Hanover, having the same executive chief, but no other necessary connection.” The corollary was “that the British Parliament has no right to exercise authority over us,” and when it endeavored to do so “one free and independent legislature” took upon itself “to suspend the powers of another, free and independent as itself.”
These were revolutionary words, and fell short by ever so little of that direct declaration of independence which they anticipated by less than two years. They would have cost Jefferson his head had it been less inconvenient to bring him to Westminster Hall, and even that inconvenience would probably have been overcome had forcible opposition been a little longer deferred in the colonies. As it was, the pamphlet “procured him the honor of having his name inserted in a long list of proscriptions enrolled in a bill of attainder commenced in one of the Houses of Parliament, but suppressed in embryo by the hasty step of events, which warned them to be a little cautious.”
One can hardly be surprised that this Jeffersonian “leap was too long, as yet, for the mass of our citizens,” and that “tamer sentiments were preferred” by the Convention. Jefferson himself frankly admitted, many years afterward, that the preference was wise. But his colleagues so well liked a boldness somewhat in excess of their own, that six months later, in view of the chance of Peyton Randolph being called away from service in the Colonial Congress, they elected Jefferson as a deputy to fill the vacancy in case it should occur. Not many weeks later it did occur. But Jefferson was detained for a short time in order to draw the reply of the Burgesses to the celebrated “conciliatory proposition,” or so called “olive branch,” of Lord North. Otherwise it was “feared that Mr. Nicholas, whose mind was not yet up to the mark of the times,” would undertake it. On June 10, 1775, the Burgesses accepted Jefferson’s draft “with long and doubtful scruples from Nicholas and Mercer,” only making some slight amendments which Jefferson described as “throwing a dash of cold water on it here and there, enfeebling it somewhat.” The day after its passage Jefferson set forth to take his seat in Congress, bearing with him the document, which had been anxiously expected by that body as being the earliest reply from any colony to the ministerial proposition. Its closing paragraph referred the matter for ultimate action to the General Congress.
Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia on the tenth day of his journey, and on June 21 became one of that assembly concerning which Lord Chatham truly said that its members had never been excelled “in solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion.” Jefferson, at the age of thirty-two, was among the younger deputies in a body which, by the aid of Dr. Franklin, aged seventy-one, and Edward Rutledge, aged twenty-six, represented all the adult generations of the country. He brought with him a considerable reputation as a ready and eloquent writer, and was justly expected, by his counsel, his pen, and his vote, to bring substantial reinforcement to the more advanced party. In debate, however, not much was to be anticipated from him, for he was never able to talk even moderately well in a deliberative body. Not only was his poor voice an impediment, but he was a man who instinctively abhorred contest. Daringly as he wrote, yet he shrank from that contention which pitted him face to face against another, though the only weapons were the “winged words” of parliamentary argumentation. Turmoil and confusion he detested; amid wrangling and disputing he preferred to be silent; it was in conversation, in the committee-room, and preeminently when he had pen, ink, and paper before him, that he amply justified his presence among the three-score chosen ones of the thirteen colonies. In his appropriate department he quickly superseded Jay as document-writer to Congress.
Yet his first endeavor did not point to this distinction. When news of the fight at Bunker’s Hill arrived in Philadelphia, Congress felt obliged to publish a manifesto setting before the world the justification of this now bloody rebellion. Jefferson, as a member of the committee, undertook to draw the paper; but he made it much too vigorous for the conciliatory and anxious temper of Dickinson; so that partly out of regard for this courteous and popular gentleman, partly from a politic desire not to outstrip too far the slower ranks, Jefferson’s sheets were submitted to Dickinson himself for revision. Not content with modification, that reluctant patriot prepared an entire substitute which was reported and accepted. But its closing four and one half clauses were borrowed from the draft of Jefferson, whose admirers think that these alone save the document from being altogether feeble and inadequate. Among them were the following significant words: “We mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored. Necessity has not yet [note the pregnant word] driven us into that desperate measure.”
A month afterward Jefferson had better luck with his composition. He was second on the committee — of which the members were chosen by ballot and took rank according to the number of votes received by them respectively — deputed to draw the reply of Congress to Lord North’s “conciliatory proposition.” He based his paper on the reply already drawn by him for the Virginian Burgesses, and was gratified by seeing it readily accepted. A few days later Congress adjourned, and Jefferson resumed his seat and duties in the State Convention, by which he was at once reelected to Congress, this time standing third on the list of delegates.
Much time has been wasted in idle efforts to determine precisely when and by whom the idea of separation and consequent independence of the provinces was first broached before the Colonial Congress. The inquiry is useless for many reasons, but conclusively so because all the evidence which the world is ever likely to see has been already adduced and has not sufficed to remove the question out of the domain of discussion. The truth is that while no intelligent man could help contemplating this probable conclusion, all deprecated it, many with more of anxiety than resolution, but not a few with a more daring spirit. In varying moods even the same individual might have different feelings. In his habitual frame of mind Jefferson thought separation to be daily approaching, and in the near presence of so momentous an event he was so far grave and dubious as to express a strong disinclination for it, though avowedly preferring it with all its possible train of woes to a continuance of the present oppression. He was too thoughtful not to be a reluctant revolutionist, but for the same reason he was sure to be a determined one. His relative, John Randolph, Attorney-General of the colony, was a loyalist, and in the summer of 1775 was about to remove to England. Jefferson wrote to him a friendly, serious letter, suggesting some considerations which he hoped that Randolph might have opportunity to lay before the English government, advantageously for both parties. He deprecates the present “contention” and the “continuance of confusion,” which for him constitute, “of all states but one, the most horrid.” He says that England:
“would be certainly unwise, by trying the event of another campaign, to risk our accepting a foreign aid, which perhaps may not be obtainable but on condition of everlasting avulsion from Great Britain. This would be thought a hard condition to those who still wish for a re-union with their parent country. I am sincerely one of those, and would rather be in dependence on Great Britain, properly limited, than on any other nation on earth, or than on no nation. But I am one of those, too, who, rather than submit to the rights of legislating for us assumed by the British Parliament, and which late experience has shown they will so cruelly exercise, would lend my hand to sink the whole island in the ocean.”
This was written August 25, 1775; three months later he wrote, with a perceptible increase of feeling:
“It is an immense misfortune to the whole empire to have a king of such a disposition at such a time … In an earlier part of this contest our petitions told him that from our King there was but one appeal. The admonition was despised and that appeal forced on us. To undo his empire, he has but one truth more to learn — that, after colonies have drawn the sword, there is but one step more they can take. That step is now pressed upon us by the measures adopted, as if they were afraid we would not take it. Believe me, dear sir, there is not in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this I think I speak the sentiments of America. We want neither inducement nor power to declare and assert a separation. It is will alone that is wanting, and that is growing apace under the fostering hand of our King. One bloody campaign will probably decide, everlastingly, our future course; and I am sorry to find a bloody campaign is decided on.”
In the autumn of 1775 Jefferson was again attending Congress in Philadelphia; early in 1776 he came home; but on May 13, 1776, he was back in his seat as a delegate from the Colony, soon to be the State, of Virginia. Events, which ten years ago had begun a sort of glacial movement, slow and powerful, were now advancing fast. On this side of the Atlantic, Thomas Paine had sent “Common Sense” abroad among the people, and had stirred them profoundly. Since the bloodshed at Lexington and Charlestown, Falmouth had been burned, Norfolk bombarded, and General "Washington, concluding triumphantly the leaguer around Boston, was as open and efficient an enemy of England as if he had been a Frenchman or a Spaniard. It was time to transmute him from a rebel into a foreigner. Nor had the members of Congress any chance of escaping the hangman's rope unless this alteration could be accomplished for all the colonists. For all prominent men, alike in military and in civil life, it was now independence or destruction. Virginia instructed her delegates to move that Congress should declare “the United Colonics, free and independent States,” and on June 7 Richard Henry Lee offered resolutions accordingly. In debate upon these on June 8 and 10 it appeared, says Jefferson, that certain of the colonies “were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem, but that they were fast advancing to that state.” To give the laggards time to catch up with the vanguard, further discussion was postponed until July 1. But to prevent loss of time, when debate should be resumed, Congress on June 11 appointed a committee charged to prepare a Declaration of Independence, so that it might be ready at once when it should be wanted. The members, in the order of choice by ballot, were: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.
For the last hundred years one of the first facts taught to any child of American birth is, that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. The original draft in his handwriting was afterward deposited in the State Department. It shows two or three trifling alterations, interlined in the handwritings of Franklin and Adams. Otherwise it came before Congress precisely as Jefferson wrote it. Many years afterward John Adams gave an account of the way in which Jefferson came to be the composer of this momentous document, differing slightly from the story told by Jefferson. But the variance is immaterial, hardly greater than any experienced lawyer would expect to find between the testimony of two honest witnesses to any transaction, especially when given after the lapse of many years, and when one at least had no memoranda for refreshing his memory. Jefferson’s statement seems the better entitled to credit, and what little corroboration is to be obtained for either narrator is wholly in his favor. He says simply that when the Committee came together he was pressed by his colleagues unanimously to undertake the draft; that he did so; that, when he had prepared it, he submitted it to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams, separately, requesting their corrections, “which were two or three only and merely verbal,” “interlined in their own handwritings;” that the report in this shape was adopted by the committee, and a “fair copy,” written out by Mr. Jefferson, was then laid before Congress.
A somewhat more interesting discussion concerns the question, how Jefferson came to be named first on the committee, to the entire exclusion of Lee, to whom, as mover of the resolution, parliamentary etiquette would have assigned the chairmanship. Many explanations have been given, of which some at least appear the outgrowth of personal likings and dislikings. It is certain that Jefferson was not only preeminently fitted for the very difficult task of this peculiar composition, but also that he was a man without an enemy. His abstinence from any active share in debate had saved him from giving irritation; and it is a truth not to be concealed, that there were cabals, bickerings, heart-burnings, perhaps actual enmities among the members of that famous body, which, grandly as it looms up, and rightly too, in the mind’s eye, was after all composed of jarring human ingredients. It was well believed that there was a faction opposed to Washington, and it was generally suspected that irascible, vain, and jealous John Adams, then just rising from the ranks of the people, made in this matter common cause with the aristocratic Virginian Lees against their fellow countryman. Adams frankly says that he himself was very unpopular; and therefore it did not help Lee to be his friend. Furthermore, the anti-Washingtonians were rather a clique or faction than a party, and were greatly outnumbered. Jay, too, had his little private pique against Lee. So it is likely enough that a timely illness of Lee’s wife was a fortunate excuse for passing him by, and that partly by reason of admitted aptitude, partly because no risk could be run of any interference of personal feelings in so weighty a matter, Jefferson was placed first on the committee with the natural result of doing the bulk of its labor.
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