On this here week of Independence, we do hereby pronounce our forefathers to have been a great many things. Determined, Intelligent, Eloquent, and… Romantic. Bear with me here – this blog will be mainly a professional, research-filled and patriotic discussion of the drafting of our Declaration of Independence and one of its main men, Thomas Jefferson. However, a paragraph devoted to the man’s love life may or may not have slipped in through the cracks. Don’t judge me, this is as close to a soap-opera as I dare to get and I was not the spark igniting the fireworks between two unlikely candidates. (I slipped a 4th of July joke in there. Get it? God I’m dazzling.) (See there, I did it again.)
Thomas Jefferson is often known as a kind of “Renaissance Man,” but not many people who could tell you that he helped change the United States into the democracy that we know today could tell you that he was born on April 13th, 1743, the third of ten children. His father, dying when Jefferson was only 16, ended up leaving his estate (roughly 10,000 acres of Virginia and around 80 slaves – no small inheritance) to be divided between his two sons – Thomas and Randolph. Independently wealthy as a teenager, Jefferson was able to take ownership of the land when he turned 21. By the time he gained that land, Jefferson was in the midst of his studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. For a time after his graduation he worked as a law clerk for one of his law professors, George Wythe. In 1767 he was admitted to the Virginia Bar and himself became a lawyer.
In 1772 Jefferson married his third cousin Martha Wayles Skelton, a 23-year-old widow, who just happened to be beautiful, accomplished, and intelligent. Seemingly a perfect match for Thomas, the two seemed to get along very well and in a short ten years of marriage, Martha bore 6 Jefferson children (though only the two girls survived to adulthood). Unfortunately this frequent child-birthing weakened her and she died at the young age of 33. Jefferson never married again, reputedly as a result of a promise made Martha, as she had been raised by stepmothers and couldn’t bear to have her children raised the same way.
During his practices as a lawyer in colonial Virginia, Jefferson was one of the main advocates for the abolition of slavery in the states. Some see an element of hypocrisy to this, as Jefferson himself owned over a hundred slaves even while petitioning to have the slave trade outlawed. The simple truth of the matter seems to be that Jefferson, never having been a good one with savings, could not have run his home with so many acres without substantial help. Jefferson’s sure belief that all men should be free also helped lead him to his views on the governing of the states. He did not think that the King of England should have governance over the states any longer, as they were not treated as equally as British citizens seemed to be. They were stopped at every turn from bettering themselves if it was outlawed by the crown. In fact, part of the Declaration of Independence, drafted first by Thomas Jefferson himself, is a list of the wrongs the British government had done the states since they were first colonized.
Mentioning this historical document gets us into the patriotism of this Fourth of July blog – the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. In 1775, Jefferson began to serve as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, soon after the onset of the Revolutionary War. Toward the beginning of his interaction in the political world, Jefferson began a lifetime friendship with John Adams. It was, in fact, Adams himself who volunteered Jefferson for the job of writing the Declaration, against Jefferson’s will! Though many thought that Adams should be the one to write the proclamation, Adams insisted Jefferson would be the right man for the job with some guidance from himself. Under these conditions, Congress was persuaded to let a somewhat unknown barrister draft the statement asserting the Independence of a new nation.
Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration in a short seventeen days, and the draft was edited by some of the founding fathers of this country – John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, in particular – before the final revision was presented to Congress on June 28th, 1776. After a final revision in which Congress edited out a section on the slave trade in America (probably much to Jefferson’s annoyance), it was ratified and signed by the delegates on July 4th, 1776. Hence the tradition of celebrating our Independence on July 4th began. (Though, in reality, our Independence took another 7 years and numerous thousands of lives before it was won.)
The Declaration itself caused a great stir, just as one would have expected it to. Supposedly, after hearing the Declaration read aloud by town officials (or even zealous citizens), angry mobs across the states destroyed signs or statues representing “royal authority.” The official copy of the Declaration that hundreds of thousands flock to see in the National Archives in Washington D.C. each year is known as the “engrossed” or “parchment” copy, as it is slightly different from the very first version printed by Dunlap on July 4, 1776. The engrossed version is the copy the members of the Congressed signed.
One of the main effects of the Declaration’s publication was its direct influence on the leaders of the French Revolution, the influence clearly observed in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man & Citizen printed in 1789. In fact, Jefferson himself, while staying in France, helped Marquis de Lafayette with the main drafts before the overthrow of the French monarchy.
Returning to Thomas Jefferson, this author of the Declaration was elected President and took the oath of office on March 4th, 1801, under less than perfect circumstances. According to Wikipedia, when Jefferson took office he was facing an $83 million national debt and an intense battle between the Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties over the Federalists idea of a central bank and tax laws. Jefferson, ever the humble “People’s President” as he was fondly known to the American people, showed up to his inauguration alone on horseback and set his own horse up in a nearby stable. His modest and easy-going nature helped soothe the tensions throughout the country and he experienced very little intense problems throughout the 8 years he spent as president. In fact, his intellectual abilities helped him reduce the national debt, as well as taxes. He won the First Barbary War on North African pirates who were kidnapping and enslaving American Naval Crews. Jefferson arranged the Louisiana Purchase – he spent $15 million and acquired almost a third of what is now regarded as the United States – and also simultaneously considered one of the most fertile tracts of land on the continent. He also helped establish West Point, the United States Military Academy. All of these successes and important moments in United States history occurred simply between 1801 and 1809, during Jefferson’s two terms in office.
Towards the end of his life, Jefferson did not slow down as one might expect someone in his position to have done. He began work on the University of Virginia, believing that unlike Britain, America ought to have an institute of higher learning without the constraints of religious rule. We should also note that the Library of Congress’ great collection began, in large part, with Jefferson’s impressive library, which was sold to the Library of Congress. Nevertheless, by his death Jefferson was in great debt (possibly in part due to his at least $25,000 book collection – this bibliophile sure knew how to collect).
This blog was not meant to be a comprehensive look at the founding of our country, but rather a quick look at an exciting time in the history of the United States of America, mainly through the eyes of our 3rd President, so if you take away anything in anticipation of your Fourth of July weekend, let it be this…
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happy 4th of July!