Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence
Of all the men known as the Founding Fathers of the United States, perhaps the man most discussed is Thomas Jefferson. He was instrumental in the creation of the country through his participation with the First and Second Continental Congress and in ensuring the successful beginning of the nation following the American Revolution. Besides being Vice President to John Adams, and then the third President of the country, he was also a member of the initial Congresses, and in the formation of the Articles of Confederation and the subsequent Constitution when the Articles proved an abysmal failure although he was in Paris at the time and thus not directly involved. He was further an ambassador, scholar, and historian, and of course arguably of most importance is the fact that Jefferson is famous for his involvement in writing the Declaration of Independence. Had he only been responsible for this single contributions to the founding of the nation he would have still been considered one of the most important American historical figures. His involvement in the construction of the document helped ensure that they were worded strongly and meticulously, providing the many evidences for the righteousness of independence in the one and laying the framework for the running of the country in the other.
The Declaration of Independence is arguably one of the most famous historical documents that were ever written. Its intention was to tell the British government that the colonies would become an independent nation under no uncertain terms and that there would be no negotiation or surrender. The revolutionaries declared that they would never acquiesce to a call to reunite with England. The attitude of the colonists was adamant, they would be independent or they would die trying. In the Declaration are some of the most oft-quoted passages in American if not world literature, particularly in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence where Jefferson famously wrote that all men are created equal (Ellis 55-56). In the colonies, the people could be legally taxed by the British government and there was nothing they could do about it. In England, the people were represented in Parliament by the House of Commons and House of Lords. Things which the people did not approve of were not made into law. Even if they disagreed with a law that was enacted, they still had the knowledge that their views were well represented in their leaders. The same was not true for the colonists. The famous phrase from the era was "No taxation without representation." There were no colonial representatives which meant that no one within the government was concerned with the best interests of the colonists. Two official letters were sent to the British government and King George III asking first for representation in Parliament and then for remuneration. Neither of these was answered to the colonist's satisfaction and so the colonists felt the only thing they could now do was become their own nation. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter dated November of 1775:
Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British empire [sic] a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America (Hazelton 19).
According to this perspective which was shared by the other Founding Fathers, the colonists believed that they were entitled to the same civil rights as the English citizens who lived on the island nation proper. However, the British government did not see the situation in the same way; as a colony the land across the Atlantic existed solely for the production of resources which could benefit the empire nation. The fact that the British government continued to treat the colonists as lesser people than those who lived on the British isle meant that the colonists had the right and indeed the responsibility to create a government wherein they would be treated fairly and equally. The Declaration explained the relationship between colonizer and the colonized people and how the soon-to-be Americans would never more willingly live under the yoke of imperial rule.
In June of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in the months following the start of American Revolutionary War. By the time the Declaration of Independence was written, the war between the colonies and England had already being going on for over a year with the colonists hoping for a swift end and the British believing the colonial military would fail and the colonies could be easily brought back into the empire. It became apparent that there would be no peaceful resolution to the disagreement between Great Britain and its former colony (Peterson 87). Individual colonies had already adopted declarations of independence, but thus far the colonies had not been a single united presence; a fact the Congress intended to rectify. The Congress voted to write a Declaration of Independence which would formally list the many grievances that the colonists felt were unfair and state the intention to break off and form their own singular country where the thirteen individual colonies would become a single united nation. It would also explain the reasons historically why the colonists had the ethical right to form their own country and why the British government should not try to prevent this from happening. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were asked to write this formal declaration and drafted Jefferson into working on this extremely important document along with two other members of this sub-committee, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston of New York (Maier 21). Supported by the adamant vocalization of John Adams, it was decided that the best course of action was to have one member of the committee, Jefferson, write the first draft and then they would jointly edit and adapt the text for the necessary purpose. He was not the first choice to write the initial draft of the document and historians have agreed that had it not been for the urging of John Adams, Jefferson would not have been trusted with writing the declaration.
Jefferson took seventeen days to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, basing much of the letter on his earlier work drafting a constitution for the colony of Virginia. Between the finishing of his draft and June 28, 1776 when the document was presented to the Congress, the committee and Jefferson edited certain portions. The most noted change was Benjamin Franklin's insistence that Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to the now famous "We hold these truths to be self-evident" (Peterson 90). The reason this change was necessary, according to Franklin, was that even though the colonists did believe that they were sanctioned by God in their actions, the intention of revolution was not to fight over religious principles. Offending the British government by either explicitly or implicitly associating them with godlessness would not make the war any easier, but would rather instill in the British soldiers the kind of religious fervor associated with the crusades and other holy wars of the past. Once the committee was satisfied with the Declaration of Independence, the document was reintroduced to the Continental Congress were the delegates as a group examined and argued over it, ultimately removing a quarter of the document either to eliminate verbosity or content with which they did not agree (Ferling 131). Thomas Jefferson was extremely unhappy; he stated afterwards that the Congress had "mangled" his words in their hasty cutting, but the Declaration is considered a masterpiece by both historical and literary scholars.
On July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress voted to…