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Collection Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789

Thomas Jefferson

[Detail] Signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Trumbull (1756-1843). Oil on canvas, c. 1819. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-19296.

(1743-1826)

Virginian Thomas Jefferson was one of the youngest members of the Continental Congress, but upon his arrival in 1775 he already had a reputation as a fine writer.

On June 11, 1776, Congress made Jefferson a member of the committee to prepare a formal Declaration of Independence; his fellow committee-members -- Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman -- decided that Jefferson should prepare the first draft. Years later, John Adams remembered insisting that Jefferson write: "Reason first -- You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second -- I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third -- you can write ten times better than I can." Jefferson responded, "I will do as well as I can." With a few changes, Jefferson's work was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776, and approved after several days of revision.

Thomas Jefferson first tried to condemn slavery in America with the Declaration of Independence. Although his original draft of the Declaration contained a condemnation of slavery, the southern states were adamantly opposed to the idea, and the clause was dropped from the final document. In 1784, he again tried to limit slavery, suggesting in a report on America's new western territory that "after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States...". Again, due largely to the resistance of the southern states, the proposal was rejected. In frustration, the Virginian later commented: "South Carolina, Maryland and !Virginia! voted against it...The voice of a single individual of the State which was divided, or of one of those which were of the negative, would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country...[I]t is to be hoped...that the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail."

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