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Thomas Jefferson


In the month of June, 1775, Mr. Jefferson appeared and took his seat in the continental congress, as a delegate from Virginia. In this enlightened assembly, he soon became conspicuous among the most distinguished for their abilities and patriotism. He was appointed on various important committees, towards the discharge of whose duties he contributed his full share. The cause of liberty lay near his heart, nor did he hesitate to incur all necessary hazard in maintaining and defending it.

Antecedently to the year 1776, a dissolution of the union with Great Britain had not been contemplated, either by congress, or the nation. During the spring of that year, however, the question of independence became one of deep and solemn reflection, among the American people. It was perceived, by many in all parts of the land, that the hope of reconciliation with the parent country was at an end. It was, indeed, an unequal contest, in which the colonies were engaged. It was a measure of unexampled boldness, which they were contemplating—a step which, should it not receive the smiles of a propitious Providence, would evidently involve them and their posterity in calamities, the full measure and duration of which no political prophet could foretell. But, then, it was a measure rendered necessary, by the oppression which they were suffering. The "shadows, clouds, and darkness," which rested on the future, did not deter them.

The language which they adopted, and the feelings which they indulged, were the language and feelings of the patriotic Hawley, who said, "We must put to sea—Providence will bring us into port."

It was fortunate for the cause of America, and for the cause of freedom, that there was a class of men at that day, who were adequate to the high and mighty enterprise of sundering the ties which bound the colonies. For this they were doubtless specially raised up by the God of heaven; for this they were prepared by the lofty energies of their minds, and by that boldness and intrepidity of character, which, perhaps, never so signally marked another generation of men.

The measure thus determined upon was, at length, brought forward in the continental congress. We have already noticed in several preceding sketches, the debate on this subject, and the important part which various individuals took in urging it forward. It belongs to this place to notice, particularly, the important services which Mr. Jefferson rendered in relation to it. A resolution had been presented by Richard Henry Lee to declare America free and independent. The debate upon this resolution was continued from the seventh to the tenth of June, when the further consideration of it was postponed until the first of July, and at the same time a committee of five was appointed to prepare provisionally a draft of a declaration of independence. At the head of this committee was placed Thomas Jefferson. He was at this time but thirty-two years of age, and was probably the youngest member of the committee, and one of the youngest men in the house for he had only served part of the former session.

Mr. Jefferson being chairman of this committee, the important duty of preparing the draft of the document was assigned to him. It was a task of no ordinary magnitude, and demanded the exercise of no common judgment and foresight. By the act itself, a nation was to stand or fall. Nay, in its effects, it was to exercise a powerful influence upon other nations on the globe, and might extend forward to the end of time.

To frame a document, which should precisely meet the exigencies of the case—which should set forth the causes of complaint, according to truth—which should abide the scrutiny of enemies at home and abroad—which should stand the test of time, especially of a day which would come, when the high wrought excitement, then existing, would have subsided—this was no ordinary task. Indeed, there were few minds, even at that day, which would have felt adequate to the undertaking.

From his study, Mr. Jefferson at length presented to his colleagues the original draft. A few changes only in the document were suggested by two of them, Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams. The whole merit of the paper was Mr. Jefferson's. On being reported to congress, it underwent a few other slight alterations; none of which, however, altered the tone, the frame, the arrangement, or the general character of the instrument.

"It has sometimes been said," observes an eloquent writer, "as if it were a derogation from the merits of this paper, that it contains nothing new; that it only states grounds of proceeding, and presses topics of argument, which had often been stated and pressed before. But it was not the object of the declaration to produce any thing new. It was not to invent reasons for independence, but to state those which governed the congress. For great and sufficient reasons it was proposed to declare independence; and the proper business of the paper to be drawn, was, to set forth those causes, and justify the authors of the measure, in any event of fortune, to the country and to posterity. The cause of American independence, moreover, was now to be presented to the world in such a manner, if it might so be, as to engage its sympathy, to command its respect, to attract its admiration; and in an assembly of most able and distinguished men, Thomas Jefferson had the high honour of being the selected advocate of this cause. To say that he performed his great work well, would be doing him injustice. To say that he did excellently well, admirably well, would be inadequate and halting praise. Let us rather say, that he so discharged the duty assigned him, that all Americans may well rejoice that the work of drawing the little deed of their liberties devolved on his hands."

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Last modified January 2, 2004