Writing the Declaration of Independence (A Vintage Short)
Joseph J. Ellis
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A colorful, enlightening account of how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the road to July 4: a selection from Joseph J. Ellis’s American Sphinx, winner of the National Book Award.
How did the newest and youngest member of Virginia’s delegation to the Constitutional Congress come to write the founding document of the American project? In “Writing the Declaration of Independence,” Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Joseph J. Ellis outlines the life of the document and the road to its adoption on July 4. From Jefferson’s arrival in Philadelphia in 1775 in an ornate carriage along with four horses and three slaves, to a fascinating guided tour of the drafts and discussions (including the importance of a good speaking voice, the theatricality of Patrick Henry, and Jefferson’s tortured, ultimately discarded section blaming the king for American slavery), this is the true history of Independence Day.
the historically correct, if unorthodox, context for answering the proverbial question: What was Jefferson thinking about on the eve of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence? The answer is indisputable. He was not thinking, as some historians have claimed, about John Locke’s theory of natural rights or Scottish commonsense philosophy. He was thinking about Virginia’s new constitution.44 An aspect of his thinking proved directly relevant for the task he was about to assume. In his
reaction to Fliegelman’s novel thesis, see Peter Onuf, “The Scholars’ Jefferson,” WMQ, L (1993), 683–84. 62. Boyd, I, 78–81, for Jefferson’s book list in 1771. BOOKS BY JOSEPH J. ELLIS AMERICAN SPHINX The Character of Thomas Jefferson For a man who insisted that life on the public stage was not what he had in mind, Thomas Jefferson certainly spent a great deal of time in the spotlight—and not only during his active political career. In his twilight years Jefferson was already taking on the
forever telling his friends that life on the public stage was not for him. Just as his political career was getting started, he seemed poised for retirement.10 Given his subsequent role in the Continental Congress and then in shaping the course of the American Revolution, his selection to serve on the Virginia delegation in Philadelphia was a fortunate accident. Jefferson was not elected to the original delegation in 1774; he was not considered a sufficiently prominent figure to be included with
barely, and largely because of his ties by blood and patronage with the Randolph circle. If his arrival in Philadelphia in June 1775 marked his entry into national affairs, he entered by the side door.11 WHIG PRINCIPLES THERE WAS ONE significant exception to this dominant pattern of reticence and marginality, but it happened to be the one item that delegates from the other colonies knew about the young Jefferson. “I have not been in Company with him yet,” reported Samuel Ward the day after
for the original Saxon values. Throughout the fall and winter of 1775 Jefferson did extensive research in Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages with the aim of documenting the claim that the earliest migrants from England to America came over at their own expense “unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain” and, most significantly, regarded their migration as a clean break with the mother country. If true, this was revisionist history with the most revolutionary consequences, for it suggested