On this day in 1743, Thomas Jefferson is born. You already know that he drafted the Declaration of Independence. But did you know that he was only 33 years old when he did it? What prompted congressional members to turn to one of their youngest for such an important task?
The answer reveals a more anti-slavery Jefferson than you might have expected.
Jefferson’s interest in political affairs began early. By 1769, he was already serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Tensions with England were escalating, and it got even worse in late 1773: The Sons of Liberty held a “Tea Party” aboard ships in Boston Harbor. Parliament retaliated immediately. In one especially harsh move, it closed the Port of Boston to all vessels until Bostonians made recompense for the tea.
Bostonians had no intention of doing THAT!
Virginians such as Jefferson soon jumped to the aid of their fellow colonists in Massachusetts. “We were under conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events,” Jefferson later described, “and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention.”
Virginia’s Royal Governor was none too pleased with any of this, of course. Two days after the House passed its resolution calling for a “day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer,” the Governor dissolved the House.
It wouldn’t be enough to squash the colonists’ discontent.
Instead, a convention was called. Representatives would meet in Williamsburg and select delegates to represent Virginia in a Continental Congress. Jefferson was supposed to be there, representing his county. Unfortunately, he got sick! He wouldn’t be able to go, but he’d already drafted a proposed “draught of instructions to be given to the delegates.” He forwarded his paper to the convention.
Jefferson surely didn’t anticipate what came next. His “draught of instructions” was soon published as a pamphlet and distributed under the title “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.”
We know that George Washington bought a copy. And we know that it was widely distributed, even in London.
“Jefferson’s words,” his biographer John B. Boles notes, “even though not officially adopted in Williamsburg, would have an outsize impact on the discussion emerging in the colonies about the nature of political sovereignty and the position of the colonies in the British Empire.”
Maybe unsurprisingly then, Jefferson was selected to attend a second Continental Congress in 1775. He was establishing himself as a thoughtful, clear writer. In early 1776, he added to this reputation when he drafted proposals for a new constitution in Virginia.
His work was more modern-minded than you might expect. He wanted to end the importation of slaves. He proposed the expansion of voting rights. He advocated for more religious freedom.
“Had Jefferson’s draft been accepted, it would have been the most progressive constitution in the world,” Boles concludes.
In the midst of these events, the Continental Congress decided to appoint a Committee of Five to draft a Declaration. Jefferson was one of these men, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Adams would later say that Jefferson was asked to draft the Declaration, in part, because Jefferson “can write ten times better than I can.”
Naturally, the Committee of Five is a story for another day.
Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (modern edition HERE)
Gordon S. Wood, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (2017)
John B. Boles, Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty (2017)
Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering (Aug. 6, 1822)
Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (modern edition HERE)