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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

The American Revolution

Jefferson’s participation in the events leading up to the American Revolution is well documented in the collection. For example, a search using the term Continental Congress will produce more than 50 documents, including:

In 1774, Jefferson wrote a pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” originally prepared as instructions for the Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress. When the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted a more moderate stance, some of Jefferson’s colleagues, with his support, published the pamphlet in Philadelphia and New York, building his reputation as both a proponent of change and a skillful political writer. The pamphlet was also widely circulated in London. In this detailed survey of events that had led to the rift between Britain and the colonies, Jefferson wrote that it was time for his majesty George III to

. . . prevent the passage of laws by any one legislature of the empire, which might bear injuriously on the rights and interests of another. Yet this will not excuse the wanton exercise of this power which we have seen his majesty practise on the laws of the American legislatures for the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates to the Continental Congress, August 1774, ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America’; Instructions,” page 312

In concluding his list of grievances against the Parliament and crown, Jefferson used a reference to natural rights that was to be the core of the Declaration of Independence he drafted two years later:

. . . That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates to the Continental Congress, August 1774, ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America’; Instructions,” page 320

  • What did Jefferson mean by describing a free people’s rights “as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate”?
  • How did Jefferson’s “Summary View of the Rights of British America” foreshadow the Declaration of Independence?
  • Why do you think the Second Continental Congress selected Jefferson as a member of the committee to draft the Declaration?

Examine Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration, written in June 1776, and his notes on debates in the Continental Congress on the Declaration on June 7, 1776. Also read sections of Jefferson’s Autobiography relating to the Declaration of Independence.

  • Compare Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence to the resolution adopted by the Second Continental Congress. How substantive were the differences in the two accounts?
  • What do you think accounted for the changes?
  • Why did Jefferson believe that some would object to accusations directed at the people of Britain?

Read the excerpts from John Adams’s diary and Jefferson’s response regarding the events surrounding the drafting of the Declaration, both provided in a note in the transcribed fragment of the Autobiography. Also read Jefferson’s letter to Madison, dated August 30, 1823, for Jefferson’s response to controversy over the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

  • On what points did Jefferson and Adams differ?
  • How did Jefferson view Timothy Pickering’s and John Adams’s recollections of the drafting of the Declaration?
  • Do you think that Pickering and Adams were trying to discredit Jefferson’s role in drafting the Declaration? Explain your answer.
  • One of the paragraphs deleted from Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence during the debate condemned slavery and the slave trade:

He waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights to life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain: determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horrours might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms, among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urged them to commit against the lives of another.

From “Thomas Jefferson, June 1776, Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence,” page 545

  • Why did South Carolina and Georgia strenuously object to this paragraph?
  • Why do you think Jefferson agreed to have the paragraph removed?
  • Using hindsight, do you think the paragraph should have remained in the document? Explain.

From 1776-1778, Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1779, he was elected governor of Virginia and was reelected in 1780. His autobiography discusses the need in the years following the Declaration of Independence to revise Virginia laws to purge them of the remnants of colonial laws. He proposed a number of revisions to the statutes while in the House and later, as governor, continued his efforts to secure passage of these reforms. The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom proposed during Jefferson’s tenure in the Assembly and finally passed in 1786 was among his proudest accomplishments. In his autobiography, he explains:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally past; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read "” departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.

From “Thomas Jefferson, July 27, 1821, Autobiography Draft Fragment,” page 538

  • Why do you think Jefferson regarded the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to be one of his proudest accomplishments? Search the collection for additional evidence of Jefferson’s commitment to the principle of religious freedom.
  • In his Autobiography, Jefferson wrote of four bills that, in his view, formed “a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican.” What were the other three bills? Why do you think Jefferson saw each, including the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, as necessary to republican government? Which proposals were enacted? Which might still be controversial today?