Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of Independence

By Judy Leithe

Peter Jefferson, a frontiersman, became a successful farmer and surveyor in the British Colony of Virginia. He and his wife, Jane, lived on a farm in Shadwell, and had a family of two boys and six girls. Thomas, the eldest son, was born on April 13, 1743, and by the age of 9 began his formal education, which included classical Greek and Roman studies. His father died when Thomas was 14 making him the heir of the 5,000-acre Monticello Plantation. He wouldn’t take ownership of his estate until he reached adulthood, so the ensuing years were taken up with the pursuit of higher education.

After two years of disciplined study, Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary at 17. There were no official law schools in Virginia at that time, so Jefferson became a “student of law” at the law firm of George Wyeth, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. At the Virginia Assembly in 1765, 22-year-old Jefferson first heard Patrick Henry speaking against the Stamp Act, when he stated emphatically that only the Colony of Virginia, rather than Great Britain, should be able to levy taxes on its citizens. Jefferson agreed, and from that time forward he became a champion for American freedom.  Ten years later, at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, Patrick Henry gave his famous speech, “Give me liberty or give me death" which helped stir the passions for freedom across the thirteen colonies.  

Jefferson assumed his father’s seat in Virginia’s Legislative House of Burgesses and later became an elected member of the Virginia Legislature. On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to present a united front against British tyranny in the colonies. By 1775, Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson, Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, and Massachusetts’ John Hancock had joined the Second Continental Congress as it was preparing to sue for America’s independence from England’s King George III.

The assembled Congress was made up of some of the most well-educated and dedicated leaders in the colonies, all of whom were resolved to stand up against England’s tyrannical rule. However, Jefferson’s exhibited ability to communicate the principles of freedom made him the obvious candidate to represent America in its statement of Declaration of Independence. So, within a matter of days, the thirty-three-year-old Jefferson wrote the first draft of this historic document, beginning eloquently which begins: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” Jefferson made clear that, since the Colonists had been denied equal representation in Parliament and had suffered heavy taxation and cruel treatment by their British overlords, it was time for them to declare the right to govern themselves.

Jefferson and his fellow delegates were influenced by, among others, the English physician and philosopher, John Locke. In the 1600s, Locke challenged the British monarchy by writing about freedom and property ownership using the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which Jefferson famously included in the Declaration of Independence.

In his draft copy, Jefferson took direct aim at the Crown’s laws regarding slavery in the colonies, stating:

“He [King George] waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare…is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold… (he has suppressed) every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce….”

Note: The Library of Congress has Jefferson’s hand-written draft of the Declaration of Independence, which can be read in full on line.

Most of the Founders were opposed to slavery, however, they knew that certain southern colonies would refuse to sign the Declaration if it contained language against the slave trade. Breaking away from England was such a radical idea, the Founders knew it was essential that all thirteen colonies sign this revolutionary document.  The colonies had been denied representation in Parliament, however, they were legally bound to follow its laws, including the legality of the slave trade.  So for now the slavery language had to be removed.    

While the slave trade was thousands of years old, it was still an integral part of the 16th and 17th century agricultural industry in the French and English West Indies colonies, as well and in the southern states of the New World.

Jefferson and George Washington were born in Virginia and inherited plantations when they were still minors. As adults, spending long periods of time in their country’s service, the production from their farms were their sole means of support. However, there are records of both men having expressed the desire to free slaves.  However, British colonial law permitted only doing so upon the death of the plantation owner, as long as he had no debts. Upon his death, Washington freed the slaves held in his name and made provisions for them in his will.  However, in Jefferson's case, due to his years of uncompensated service to his country, as well as his famous library, wine collection and, his generous entertaining of friends and dignitaries, he incurred significant debts up until his death.  In his lifetime Jefferson was able to free some of his slaves but, the remaining slaves were sold to help repay some of his debts.     

During his lifetime, Jefferson’s contributions to the creation and growth of America were impressive. In his thirties, he served in the Virginia Legislature, the Continental Congress, and, as one of America’s Founding Fathers was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. At thirty-six, he served as the second Governor of Virginia, and in his forties, was the U.S. Ambassador to France, as well as the first U.S. Secretary of State. Also, to put an end to government’s religious dictates, Jefferson wrote a bill for Virginia law which protected an individual’s freedom to follow one’s own religious beliefs. His bill was also ratified into U.S. law in the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, which reads in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In his fifties, Jefferson served as John Adams’ Vice President, and went on to become the third President of the United States, during which time he doubled the size of the U.S. when he successfully negotiated with Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase. In his seventies, one of Jefferson’s proudest accomplishments was to found the University of Virginia.

When Jefferson and John Adams campaigned against each other for the Presidency, serious political and personal disagreements had lasting effects on their relationship. Toward the end of their remarkably long lives, these two remaining American Founding Fathers recognized that they had witnessed incredible history-in-the making and began corresponding with one another. In one of the most unique turns of Providence, eighty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson, and ninety-one-year-old John Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826 -- the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.