Monday, March 24, 2014

Thomas Jefferson, Rebel with a Cause

Thomas Jefferson was a planter, architect, revolutionary, author, agricultural scientist, inventor, and politician. He did other things in his spare time. His tombstone is inscribed, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”  The inscription says nothing about a presidency where he reduced spending, cut taxes, kept us out of war, and doubled the land mass of the country. He wrote the epitaph himself and included the accomplishments that he took the most pride in. 

Jefferson was in France during the Constitutional Convention, but the Declaration of Independence is possibly the most hopeful and eloquent statement of the Founding Principles. On June 11, 1776, the second Continental Congress appointed a committee to write a declaration of independence. Besides Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman were selected. One of these five was a renowned author. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac and his newspaper articles in the Pennsylvania Gazette had made him the best-known writer in North America. But Franklin declined to draft the declaration, supposedly due to poor health, so the committee asked the thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson to draft the document.

In less than three weeks, Jefferson completed this historic document and presented it to the rest of the committee. The committee mostly accepted the document as written, except that Franklin made some subtle but important revisions. For example, Jefferson had written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” which Franklin revised to “self-evident.” Some have suggested that Franklin was pushing the text toward the analytic empiricism of David Hume, but it’s more likely that the master editor was wordsmithing for a more graceful rhythm to the words.

On June 28th, the Committee of Five reported out the declaration to Congress. Congress proceeded to make thirty-nine revisions, but thankfully left the preamble alone. Altering the list of grievances did not dilute the earth-shaking ideas in the first two paragraphs. Jefferson never publicly uttered a word of complaint, but he secretly fumed at the constant meddling.  

Jefferson reported that afterward, Franklin told him that he avoided drafting papers that would be reviewed by a public body. You can almost hear the seventy-year-old patriarch chuckling as he gave this advice to the young Virginian. According to Jefferson, Franklin told him the following story.
An apprentice hatter was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” with a figure of a hat subjoined. He then submitted it to friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word “Hatter” repetitive, because it was followed by the words “makes hats.” It was struck out. The next observed that the word “makes” might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words “for ready money” were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. The inscription now stood, “John Thompson sells hats.” “Sells hats!” says the next friend. “Why, nobody expects you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?” It was stricken out, and “hats” followed it, as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced to “John Thompson” with the figure of a hat subjoined.
The principles espoused in the declaration were not new. In 1822, John Adams answered a query about the Declaration of Independence. “We reported it to the committee of five. It was read, and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticized anything. We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson’s handwriting, as he first drew it. As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.”

Jefferson himself told Henry Lee, “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Nearly every American recognizes the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration: “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.” Jefferson rightly deserves enormous recognition and praise for writing an eloquent and powerful expression of this revolutionary concept, but it was an idea more universal than one man—or even one generation. Harry Truman called the Declaration of Independence “the supreme expression of our profound belief.  Let’s remember to take it out from under its glass case when we need it."

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