Happy Independence Day, America! 242 years ago, the Second Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain, changing the course of history and spawning independence movements all over the globe.
As such, it’s only fitting that today we look at the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
Few figures in the period of the Early Republic have inspired as much debate as Jefferson, who clashed frequently with President Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, while serving as Secretary of State. His friendship with John Adams turned into a bitter, acrimonious rivalry, as the two parted ways on the proper response to the French Revolution, then squared off against one another in the 1796 and 1800 presidential elections. The two would make amends later in life, exchanging some of the liveliest, most insightful correspondence of the period.
After the publication of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense” electrified pro-independence sentiment throughout the colonies, the Second Continental Congress put aside any hopes of reconciliation with Britain, and instead decided to declare independence. To draft the document that would take the colonies across the Rubicon, the Congress selected Jefferson.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration with his fellow countrymen and other European nations in mind, although it was addressed to Parliament and King George III. The Declaration is one of the most brilliant documents ever written, and its opening paragraphs are almost more important than the specific list of grievances against the English government.
Jefferson’s claim—radical at the time—that “all men are created equal”—shook the world, and its reverberations through history are well-documented. There are, however, some other key phrases. The phrase “When in the Course of human events” seems innocuous on the face, but carries an important meaning: the “unalienable” rights are not unique to any one people, nation, or time in history, but are universal. All peoples enjoy natural rights that are woven into the fabric of the universe—and which were “endowed by [our] Creator.”
Jefferson was likely a Deist, believing that a God created the universe, but afterward left it to work and unfold according to physical laws of nature. Nevertheless, Jefferson believed—as did many of the Founders, who were often products of the Scottish Enlightenment (and, fortunately, not the more destructive French Enlightenment)—that the Creator imbued the physical universe with natural rights, just as He created gravity.
Regardless, after some revisions—the congressional committee that commissioned Jefferson had him change “Life, Liberty, and Property” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”—the Declaration was adopted as both a specific list of grievances detailing America’s case to “a candid world,” and as a timeless expression of America’s belief in natural rights. The usual disclaimers apply—women and free blacks, not to mention slaves, were left out of this consideration at the time, despite objections from Abigail Adams, wife of our second president (and mother of yesterday’s subject)—but the Declaration paved the way for all Americans to enjoy greater liberty.
When time permits, I will dive into a deeper, lengthier discussion of Jefferson’s legacy; as it is, it’s taken me several hours just to write this much, as I’m fulfilling my avuncular duties of watching my niece and nephew. For now, I will end on one final anecdote:
On 4 July 1826, Thomas Jefferson passed away—the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A few shorts hours, in what is likely the most serendipitous event in American history, an aged John Adams slipped away, too. Moments before his passing, Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” although Jefferson had passed just hours before. An attendant by Adams’s side said that, at the moment of the great man’s death, a sudden thunderstorm whipped up, as if the artillery of Heaven were welcoming him home.
To read a full transcript of the Declaration of Independence, I recommend this version at Archives.gov: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript