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Thomas Jefferson

1775-1776

Political Tensions 1770-1775

Economic, Social, and Political Reforms 1776-1796

Whereas the First Virginia Convention had been a relatively open affair held at Williamsburg, the Second Virginia Convention, held just over six months later, was much more serious and surreptitious. Recognizing it to be a dangerously public meeting of rebels, Jefferson urged for the gathering to be moved inland to Richmond, further from the epicenter of imperial and royalist factions. The main purpose of this March 1775 convention was to review the policies and positions of the delegates that would be sent to the Second Continental Congress, to be held in Philadelphia that coming May. But with that mission accomplished, discussion turned to the protection of Virginia itself.

Many at the convention were infuriated by the recently passed Quebec Act, which extended British imperial control into the Great Lakes frontier region, against the competing claims of Virginia and several other colonies. This act of territorial aggression, coupled with continuing strictures in the port of Boston and other northeastern coastal areas, prompted a streak of hostility and militancy among several delegates.

Patrick Henry argued for the raising of a militia to defend Virginias lands, an aggressive measure which the radical Jefferson fully supported. Moderates such as George Washington recognized that such action would be interpreted by the British imperialists as a provocation at best, and an open declaration of war at worst. Nevertheless, the motion passed by a small majority behind Henrys rallying cry, Give me liberty or give me death! While Henry spearheaded the rhetorical charge, it was Jefferson who drew up the plan for Virginias defense.

The call to arms was in keeping with the mood on the continent. Less than three weeks later, on April 18, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. News of the bloodshed took another three weeks to reach Virginia. In the interim, Jefferson returned to Monticello to prepare for his role in the Virginia militia, and to await word on his status as an alternate to the Second Continental Congress, just then commencing at Philadelphia.

When news of the fighting at Lexington and Concord finally broke, the entire eastern seaboard was thrown into a flurry. The Earl of Dunmore called an emergency session of the House of Burgesses on June 1, where he presented a proposal from Parliament to make peace with colonies. The gist of the reconciliation held that the colonists would thenceforward be at liberty to tax themselves in the interest of imperial fortunes, rather than submit to outside legislation.

But such a halfway house was not tolerable to Jefferson or his fellow Virginians. Speaking on behalf of the Burgesses, Jefferson wrote in reply to Prime Minister Lord North that an American government must be set up by Americans and for Americans, and that any alternate arrangement would simply be oppression of a different kind. This resolution was approved by the House of Burgesses, and eventually signed, sealed, and delivered by the Second Continental Congress.

Once Dunmore realized that no reconciliation was forthcoming, he fled to the safety of a British frigate off the shore of Williamsburg, throwing the governance of Virginia into serious question. Days later, Jeffersons cousin Peyton Randolph, recognizing his own need to anchor the House of Burgesses, encouraged Jefferson to return to the Second Continental Congress in his stead. Thus, at the tender age of thirty-two, Jefferson emerged as a critical player in the fortunes of the nascent revolution.

Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia at midsummer, just on the heels of one of the bloodiest battles in British history, Bunker Hill. Fought at Charlestown, Massachusetts, the battle saw over one thousand men killed and thousands more wounded. Such carnage made the drafting of a war resolution from the Second Continental Congress all the more urgent. Jefferson was called into committee to assist in the composition of a Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.

Benjamin Franklins original draft had been rendered ineffectual by recent events, and the existing committee was expanded to invigorate debate and discussion. However, Jeffersons second draft was viewed as overly incendiary and radical, and it was only a third draft drawn up by the more moderate John Dickinson of Pennsylvania that eventually found favor with the Congress.

In the ensuing year, Jefferson would travel back and forth from Monticello to Philadelphia three times. In the midst of the mounting war, Jefferson faced several family trials that tested his revolutionary resolve. The reality of the conflict must have been especially apparent to Jefferson as he helped his cousin, the royalist John Randolph, pack up his belongings in a flight to England, where he felt compelled to relocate for his own personal safety. Jeffersons own family was hardly safe in the rural Piedmont, where fighting broke out after the Earl of Dunmore launched a series of loyalist raids on revolutionary strongholds. Virginia continued to be a significant theater at different times throughout the war, and although Jeffersons family they moved several times between various family estates to escape the worst fighting, they were never truly far from danger.

As the war continued to escalate, two deaths in Jeffersons immediate family struck close by, leaving him on the verge of despondency. September saw the unexpected death of his second daughter, three-year old Jane; this, the first of several untimely casualties in the history of Jeffersons long paternity, must have been especially difficult to bear. Then, in March of 1776, Jeffersons mother Jane Randolph Jefferson died prematurely of a stroke at the age of fifty-seven. Though Jefferson had endured a fractious relationship with his mother from adolescence onward, the loss stung deeply nevertheless, and he was laid up for over a month with yet another vicious series in his recurring string of migraine headaches.

During Jeffersons absence from Philadelphia, the spirit of 76 literally came into its own. At the end of January, Thomas Paine, recently emigrated from England, published a pamphlet titled Common Sense, which laid out a logical argument in support of the colonies establishing independence from Britain. Paines work was tremendously popular throughout the colonies, and especially in Virginia, where the House of Burgesses was dissolved in May in favor of establishing a new government and drafting a new constitution. Jefferson was placed at the fore of this revolutionary project, and returned to his seat in Congress at Philadelphia in order to proceed with the details.

On May 15, the day after Jefferson arrived at Philadelphia, Congress issued a resolution spearheaded by John Adams that urged each of the several colonies to make their own arrangements for self-government. Effectively, independence had been set into irrevocable motion; all that was left was for a formal declaration to be made. And as Jefferson tinkered with aspects of his draft Virginia constitution, talk of an official independence resolution grew.

On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia issued a proposal to the effect that these colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, on the understanding that all political connection between the said States and Britain is and ought to be, totally dissolved. Rather than act hastily on such a significant measure, moderates urged for a delay, and a committee was assembled to draft a formal declaration of independence supporting Lees resolution. From a group that included Adams and Franklin, Jefferson was selected to author the document, on the strength of his superior writing skills.

In the event, Jeffersons authorship was a closely guarded secret, and in truth there were many other affairs to consume his attention during the tense weeks of June that ensued. Most conspicuous among his responsibilities was continuing work on the draft constitution of Virginia. This duty, combined with his other obligations to Congress, made the writing of the Declaration of Independence into a job he performed at odd hours and between-times.

Finally, on July 2, days after Jefferson submitted his final draft of the declaration to Congress, a vote in favor of the resolution on independence went through. The next job was to closely examine the language of Jeffersons declaration, revising it where unclear or overly contentious, and bowdlerizing it so as not to give offense. Jefferson was greatly pained to observe the detailed expurgation of the words he had taken such great pains to produce. In his view, a revolutionary document was never made to tiptoe, for the very nature of the document meant that few, if any, bridges would be left unburned. See the Declaration of Independence SparkNote

One of Jeffersons greatest disappointments relating to the Declaration of Independence was the excision of his lengthy condemnation against King George III for propagating the slave trade in America. Jeffersons peers in Congress rightly understood that forces beyond royalty kept the slave trade in motion, and that to turn an overly accusatory finger at the English King would be to raise the expectation of abolition once independence was fully achieved. Jefferson may have welcomed such an expectation, at least in theory, but again financial necessities and political realities intervened to quell the tide of anti-slavery sentiment, even in the midst of this ostensibly noble testament to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It was not what it had been, but it was still essentially Jeffersons creation. On July 4, President of Congress John Hancock affixed his signature to the Declaration of Independence, making it official. It was read in public a few days afterward by the Sheriff of Philadelphia County, and signed by fifty-five other delegates, including Jefferson, on August 2.

In its revised form, the Declaration of Independence read primarily as a list of grievances against King George III. It was by no means a strikingly original document, and indeed Jefferson may have culled his arguments from several other sources. Despite its symbolic significance, it was not hailed at the time with the sense of awe it is afforded today. But by the close of Jeffersons life, it had begun to acquire something of the mystique that it continues to enjoy: a fact that the aging Jefferson was well aware of and welcomed.

After the Declaration of Independence, Congress remained with much important work to be done. Jefferson stayed in Philadelphia through the summer, taking a quiet part in the initial debates on what would eventually become the Articles of Confederation (See the Articles of Confederation SparkNote). Still, in the midst of such legendary proceedings, Jeffersons concerns continually returned to the personal and political responsibilities he had left behind in Virginia. In September, finally relieved of his duties, he quickly made his way home to Monticello to re-establish contact with his wife and family and to prepare for the important work of refining Virginias institutions and laws.

Just before entering the newly formed Virginia Assembly in October, Jefferson received an invitation from John Hancock to serve as a commissioner at the Court of France. While Jefferson considered accepting the post, he thought better of it in the end, preferring not to upset his family situation and risk the delicate health of his wife. In time, Jefferson would in fact arrive in France and enjoy an auspicious career as a foreign diplomat. But in the autumn of 1776, with much to be done at home in the face of a revolution, it was the task of domestic policy that occupied the fore of Jeffersons attention.

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