It wasn’t widely known that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence until a quarter century later when he stood for the presidency of the United States. At the time when the 33-year-old Virginian sat down to write America’s birth certificate at his portable writing desk in a boarding house on Seventh and Market streets in Philadelphia in the third week of June 1776, he was a relatively unknown figure in national circles.
He had a reputation for being a hard reader, a brilliant scholar, and a lucid crafter of English prose, but he did not take part in the sometimes-heated debates that were propelling the 13 American colonies toward independence. John Adams later reported that “during the whole Time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together.”
Jefferson was a shy man and a homebody, who had lingered so long at Monticello in the spring of 1776 that he nearly missed the opportunity to write the document that secured his immortality. He did not finally leave Virginia until early May. His wife Martha was never in robust health. She would die in 1782 at the age of 33. His mother Jane had died on the last day of March — suddenly, of a stroke. He lingered at home for five weeks following her death, suffering from what he called his “periodical headache,” some sort of severe tension headache (possibly migraine) that forced him to sit alone in a darkened room for days, even weeks, at a time.
By the time he reached Philadelphia in mid-May, the American Revolution was picking up speed. On May 15, the Congress passed a resolution — the work of John Adams — urging each colony to establish its own post-colonial government. On June 9, a committee of five was appointed to draw up a statement justifying American independence. Two members dropped away immediately. That left Jefferson, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. Franklin preferred not to undertake the assignment. Adams prevailed on Jefferson to write the first draft, citing three reasons. First, Adams believed that a Virginian should take the lead. Second, Adams acknowledged that many delegates to the Continental Congress found him obnoxious. Third, Adams said Jefferson wrote 10 times better than he did.
Jefferson accepted the assignment reluctantly, but he brought genius to the project. As he later recalled, he consulted “neither book nor pamphlet in writing it.” His goal was “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” Franklin and Adams enthusiastically endorsed Jefferson’s draft and offered up a few minor suggestions. The committee submitted the finished document to the Congress on June 28. Congress debated and amended the Declaration on July 2nd, 3rd, and part of the 4th of July before unanimously voting to adopt it.
The writing desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence is now in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.
Jefferson had a hard time concentrating on his work in Philadelphia because he was so concerned about the health of his wife Martha back in Virginia. He was desperate for any report of her condition — from her own hand or that of a relative or friend. He found the silence terrifying and debilitating. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was a physically fragile woman whose many pregnancies (including miscarriages) broke her health and led to her death at 33 (Jefferson was just 39). Four of their six children died in early childhood. Jefferson would later write, “I am born to lose everything I love.”
Today, he would of course have instantaneous contact with his wife, by phone, text, email and FaceTime. Today, Martha Jefferson would have excellent medical care. In fact, she would almost certainly survive the maladies that killed her in her early adulthood, and it is quite likely that all six of their children would have lived full lives in an age of antibiotics. Such are the profound advances of medicine between Jefferson’s time and ours.
We regard the 4th of July as the most important day on the secular American calendar. In 1776, July 4 (a Thursday) was a relatively undramatic day in Philadelphia. The Second Continental Congress had voted independence two days previously (July 2), after months of debate, dithering, diffidence, and hesitation. That was the critical moment. It’s not that the delegates regarded the Declaration of Independence as unimportant. They debated every concept, every phrase, even points of punctuation for two and a half days before finally adopting a chastened version of Jefferson’s draft.
But they considered the fateful July 2 vote to break allegiance with the most powerful nation on earth as greatly more important than the document that would be promulgated to justify their action to “the candid world.” The delegates did not even sign the soon-to-be-famous document on the 4th of July. They sent it to a local printer so that it could be disseminated widely in the colonies (suddenly, states) as soon as possible. In fact, there never was a solemn signing ceremony of the sort we like to imagine in American mythology. The copy of the Declaration we revere as sacred (now in the National Archives) was not signed until August 1776 and then in a relatively casual ad hoc fashion, different delegates attaching their names at different moments as they came and went in what is now known as Independence Hall.
The sense one gets from examining the available documents is that Thomas Jefferson lived through July 4, 1776, without fanfare. He was undoubtedly relieved that the Congressional deliberation over his Declaration was over. We know that he was a thin-skinned and sensitive man who did not enjoy being the focus of heated debate dominated by men of inflated egos who loved to quibble and nitpick and hear themselves talk. Such men (lawyers), he would later quip, “are paid to talk by the hour.”
He probably brooded his way through the afternoon and evening of the 4th, because he felt strongly that Congress had “mangled” his document by toning down some of his language and removing a long paragraph denouncing George III and the British Parliament for perpetuating the slave trade. He almost certainly returned to his boarding house when Congress recessed, ate a light late afternoon dinner, tidied up his personal effects, made jottings in his diaries and account books, and perhaps played the violin as he relived the debate and attempted to evaluate the historical importance of what he and his compatriots had just accomplished.
We have no evidence that Jefferson and other founders celebrated the revolutionary moment at a Philadelphia tavern. Jefferson was not the kind of man who spent much time in pubs. He was an exceedingly private person. His mind was already back in Virginia, where he believed the real work of the revolution was being undertaken.
Jefferson was an obsessive keeper of records. His account book (i.e., financial log) for July 4, 1776, reports that he purchased an expensive thermometer that day, bought seven pair of women’s gloves, and gave a small amount of money to charity (unspecified). In his usual meticulous way, Jefferson recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. as 68 degrees, skies clear, a light north wind; and again at 1 p.m., 76 degrees with “increasing clouds.” Jefferson’s diaries and letters are sometimes maddening to historians. He seldom recorded his emotions or even impressions of the dramatic moments through which he lived. He belongs to the “just the facts, ma’am” school of recordkeeping.
John Adams, as always, was more effusive. On July 3, 1776, well aware of the magnitude of the events unfolding in Philadelphia, he wrote a wonderfully prescient letter to his wife Abigail:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
“Illuminations” are fireworks. Adams was right about the American way of celebrating Independence Day, but wrong about the date. He had done more to bring about that fateful vote than any other of the 50-some delegates of the Continental Congress. He rightly believed that the vote to secede from the British empire was more important than the news release that announced that decision. This was a view that Adams held for the rest of his long life. He later asked his friend Benjamin Rush “Was there ever a Coup de Theatre, that had So great an Effect as Jefferson’s Penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?” Penmanship? This is the very definition of sour grapes.
And yet the proud, envious, insecure and irascible Adams died 50 years later, not on the day the resolution of independence passed, but on the anniversary of Jefferson’s immortal Declaration. Jefferson and Adams died within a few hours of each other, 563 miles apart, on July 4, 1826. They had not seen each other since the first days of March 1801, but, beginning in 1812, they exchanged some of the finest letters in American history. Jefferson’s last words — in his bed at his beloved Monticello — on the 4th of July 1826 were, “Is it the fourth?” He was trying to hang on to that anniversary moment of the greatest of his many great achievements. Adams’ last words — in his bed in Quincy, Mass. — a few hours later, were “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
There is a paradox in Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence. If the other founding fathers had known that the Declaration was going to become the most famous document in American history, Jefferson would not have gotten the assignment to draft it. That honor might have been appropriated by the president of the Continental Congress John Hancock or by John Adams or even the aging Benjamin Franklin, who in fact suggested that young Jefferson use the word “self-evident” rather than his draft formulation, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”
John Trumbull's fanciful recreation of the moment Jefferson and his revolutionary colleagues presented the draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress.
But if any one of those men — great men, able with the pen — had written the Declaration of Independence, it would almost certainly not be the most famous document in American history. Nobody else had Jefferson’s magical capacity with the pen — lucidity, a perfect balance of passion, reason and control, the delicate mingling of poetry and prose, idealism and hard data and Jefferson’s magnificent cadence of confidence in articulating the cause of humankind. Many others could have written the memo, but only Jefferson had the genius to find the words to embody the universal aspiration of humanity to govern him- or herself. It was as if he had been preparing all of his life for this moment. And he was still only 33 years old.
In the famous preamble, which at the time was regarded as mere preface (almost Enlightenment boilerplate) before the real business of the Declaration of Independence got underway, namely the long list of crimes and oppressions committed by King George III, his ministers, and the British parliament, Jefferson wrote the 35 most important words in the English language:
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.
Nobody in the Second Continental Congress could possibly have known how potent that sentence was going to be in the “course of human events,” from 1776 to today. And even if Jefferson himself is now regarded by many as a toxic historical figure, his words are as much a foundation of the Black Lives Matter movement as “I can’t breathe.” Not even Jefferson could have known as he puttered about his boarding rooms on the evening of July 4, 1776, that he had written the one sentence that humankind can never live without.
We can live without “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” or even, if absolutely necessary, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” but we cannot live without “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” As Abraham Lincoln put it, Jefferson offered the world “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
The preamble of the Declaration of Independence is the gold standard of human aspiration against which all governments and all social structures must be evaluated. It’s amazing how so simple a principle — that every human being has equal validity, equal rights, equal dignity — is so very difficult to realize.
As Lincoln rightly understood, the preamble of the Declaration of Independence no longer belongs to Thomas Jefferson, who was a complicated and perplexing man, a liberty-loving slave holder, a man who decried the mingling of black and white blood (miscegenation) but mingled for more than 30 years with his household slave Sally Hemings, a natural philosopher who celebrated the dignity and independence of Native Americans while doing all he could to dispossess them of their sovereign lands, a revolutionary who believed that men should govern themselves, but women should be content to preside over the nursery, a masterful record keeper who was publicly frugal and privately bankrupt — and on and on.
The words of the Declaration of Independence have long ceased to belong to Jefferson, who in some ways was a man far ahead of his time and in other ways well behind the most enlightened thinking of his era. They belong to humankind. The preamble does not lose any of its universal revolutionary validity just because the man who wrote it was highly imperfect. In fact, the great sentence, more than anything else in Jefferson’s long and productive life, is the chief indictment against him.
Thomas Jefferson around the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book, Bring Out Your Dead: The Literature and History of Pandemics is available at Amazon.com.