Opening of the Declaration of Independence / Wikimedia Commons
Professor Freeman discusses the Declaration of Independence and sets the document in its historical context. The Declaration was not the main focus of the Second Continental Congress, which was largely concerned with organizing the defensive war effort. The Congress had sent King George III the Olive Branch Petition in a last attempt at reconciliation in August 1775, but the King ignored the petition and declared the colonies to be in rebellion. Throughout the colonies, local communities began debating the issue of independence on their own, often at the instruction of their colonial legislatures, and these local declarations of independence contributed to the formal declaration of independence by the Continental Congress in July 1776. Professor Freeman concludes the lecture by describing the decision to have Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration.
The Declaration of Independence / Public Domain
At the core of today’s lecture we have a piece of paper. Of course, it’s an iconic piece of paper to us, but it’s a piece of paper just the same. And part of what we’re going to be looking at today in this lecture is that obviously this Declaration was more than just a piece of paper produced by a bunch of guys in one room — that actually, declaring independence was an event, and it was an event that reached far beyond the Second Continental Congress, and actually was hashed out in towns and cities throughout the colonies, and I’ll be talking some about that today.
So as you’ll see today, and it’ll be logically following through other things that I’ve said in the course, what we’re talking about here is a wrenching progress, a major decision that was an act of treason, an action that the colonists knew would set them on a dangerous path. Now given lots of the stuff I’ve said so far in this course, hopefully you’re expecting — you’re understanding why this would be a wrenching process, why it would seem radical or as radical as it did. It represented a break from the mother country that American colonists obviously had long embraced as their own, as well as a dangerous act that set a collection of colonies in warfare against the most powerful nation on earth. So, big step.
So it’s an important act, but we need to be careful in assuming that the piece of paper that explained its rationale had some kind of magical, iconic value at the time that it was created, because it didn’t. And as you’ll see, it was not seen as the main focus of the process of declaring independence, and in a way it was almost seen as a formality to the actual act of declaring independence. And it wasn’t intended to say something dramatically new. It’s come to mean a lot of things over the centuries, but at the time it was not supposed to be something radically new.
As Jefferson put it — And all of these founder types, those who live who into old age, are asked eternally through their old age to: ‘tell us about.’ Right? Jefferson got all these tell-us-about-the-Declaration letters from people. Adams got the same kind of letters. I’m going to be quoting later on from one or two of their explanations of what happened surrounding the Declaration of Independence. But in one of these letters when someone asked Jefferson, ‘So how did you decide what was going to be in the Declaration? Where did the ideas come from?’ — and Jefferson said that the Declaration was, quote, “neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing. It was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” Okay. That was what it was — not only Jefferson intended it to be, but what he understood the document was supposed to be doing.
So as we’ll see in today’s lecture, the Declaration isn’t filled with original thoughts beaming out of the brain of Thomas Jefferson. Rather, it reflected American assumptions about government and the rights of the body politic. So in essence, it transcribed a mass of ideas that had been brought into the open and defined by what the colonists took to be British transgressions against their rights as colonists and as British subjects.
Organizing for War during the Second Continental Congress
A depiction of the Second Continental Congress voting on the United States Declaration of Independence, by Robert Edge Pine / Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Now as I suggested in last Thursday’s lecture, the Declaration of Independence came roughly six months after the publication of Common Sense in 1776, but it was by no means the only or even the most important thing that the Congress had to do at that time, sort of not what we would expect given that it’s this iconic document.
And I’ll be talking more about the other things that Congress had to do in Thursday’s lecture, but for now I’ll say that by the time the Second Continental Congress met, and it first met in May of 1775, shots had already been fired at Lexington and Concord. So, as Thomas Paine put it, and I quoted him last week, the colonies had been set on fire, and the Congress now faced the monumental task of organizing some kind of either defensive effort or war effort, but whatever it was, they had to organize it. That was going to be a big problem. It was going to be a huge challenge. That’s happening at the same time that everything that I’m talking about today is happening. So even as we’re debating independence, the Congress also has to deal with a whole range of other issues that really are immediate and pressing and are about basically organizing a war.
So not surprisingly, given that British soldiers had killed some colonists in Massachusetts in April of 1775, when the Second Continental Congress came into session in May there was already a strong feeling of colonial unity and what at the time they called rage militaire, right? — this sort of fervent support of the colonial cause.
And you can see the mood of the colonists generally in the treatment that they gave the congressional delegates as they traveled down to Philadelphia for the meeting. So as Samuel Adams and John Hancock traveled down from Massachusetts and they met up with delegates from Connecticut and New York as they went south, all along their way local militia units came out to accompany them and seemingly to protect them from the British. It’s not like actually the British were going to jump out from Connecticut and shoot down the delegates to the Continental Congress, but still the impulse was there. These militia came out to guard the delegates heading down to Congress. And all along the route people came out to watch these delegates as they passed by and greeted them with shouts of “huzzah.”
Okay, huzzah. Huzzah is the eighteenth-century equivalent of hooray — huzzah, which is very somehow eighteenth-century sounding. I don’t know. Hooray with a Z in it just doesn’t sound very modern, and I have to — what pops into my head is, a million years ago actually I had a huzzah moment, I had a personal huzzah moment, in which I was invited to some big black-tie celebration of a founder who shall go nameless. And at the founder sort of celebration, all — we’re all in our long dresses and tuxedos, a black-tie event — the organizer actually got us all to stand and yelled three huzzahs for the founder. So there’s a group of all these very formal people going “Huzzah.” [laughs] So even now it feels ridiculous to me, but even at the time, I thought — yeah, you just — you haven’t lived as an eighteenth-century historian until you’ve had the chance to scream “huzzah” in honor of a Founding Father so I had my huzzah moment. There is my huzzah moment. There’s an explanation of huzzah.
We have a lot of huzzahing going for the delegations as they’re heading down to Philadelphia. So in all of that huzzahing you can see that the colonial cause is not an isolated effort being managed by a few dozen men in a room. To all of these people at the time, just after Lexington and Concord, the mere existence of the Congress, which was a body formed by all of the colonies together, was proof of colonial unity, so it had great significance even just on that most basic level. And actually, although people didn’t know it at the time, the Continental Congress would end up being the sole government for the colonies until 1781 when the Articles of Confederation end up being ratified, and obviously I’ll talk more about that in a lecture to come.
A hand-colored map depicting the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Siege of Boston, 1775 / Library of Congress
When discussing Common Sense, I mentioned some of the efforts of the Second Continental Congress to reach reconciliation with Britain and, as I’ve already said, the delegates did not arrive in Philadelphia assuming that they were supposed to be working for independence. They were working at reconciliation. Now of course, as I’ve just explained, they were also worrying about organizing armed forces for defensive purposes and they were pursuing these two sort of conflicting motives at the same time. So they are thinking about reconciliation and worrying about defense as — well, as — In case that doesn’t work, we really better worry about that. So we can’t take independence for granted.
We also shouldn’t take colonial unity for granted because yes, there is this rage militaire, people are united because of Lexington and Concord, but if you look up close at the Continental Congress you can see some of the ways in which it really wasn’t one united body, but it really did represent independent bodies, independent colonies joining together for the moment.
So one example: There was actually no single method set to determine how many delegates should attend from each colony. So basically each colony decided on its own how many people it felt like sending to the Second Continental Congress. So Virginia sent seven men and they seemed to have some kind of rotation system so that guys always seemed to be coming and going. Well, we’ve got these guys there. Let’s take them home and bring these new guys there. No one else really knew the system of what was happening in Virginia, but they always had people there. They just changed a lot. New York ultimately appointed twelve men but they didn’t come really reliably, and so ultimately New York decided that you only needed to have three of them present to vote. Okay. So first of all, obviously attendance is a little quirky, but beyond that every colony is deciding on its own how many people it wants to send.
So you can really see how the Continental Congress is a body encapsulating delegations from separate and distinct colonies. And before anything really major could be done, delegations either needed to confer on their own or, more often, I suppose, confer with people back home in their colony to determine what it was that their colony wanted them to do. And obviously the different ideas and biases and interests in the various colonies were different enough to make some decisions extremely difficult. So you’ve got a pretty distinctive kind of legislative body.
King George III’s Response to the Olive Branch Petition and the Release of Common Sense
Olive Branch Petition from the Second Continental Congress, 1775 / Library of Congress
And, as I mentioned on Thursday, one of the notable things that this congress produced was the Olive Branch Petition, which was this one final stab at reconciliation. The Olive Branch Petition was approved on July 5, 1775, in the hope of ending bloodshed. The Petition walked a delicate line, declaring loyalty to the King — not talking about rights or making demands — and asking for the King’s assistance in reaching some kind of reconciliation. So it’s appealing to the loyal — There’s people saying they’re loyal to the King, they’re not raging about rights and demands, but they are asking for assistance in helping somehow to smooth things over.
Unfortunately, the petition reached the King at the same time as news of Bunker Hill, okay, one of those unfortunate strikes of fate. So not surprisingly, the Petition did not have a wonderfully convincing impact on the Crown, and in August of 1775 the King declared the colonies to be in rebellion. And basically he ignored — as I mentioned also in the last lecture — he ignored the Olive Branch Petition and by doing so, basically played into the hands of more radical colonists by making reconciliation seem pretty unlikely and really almost demanding some more dramatic action from the colonies.
So August of 1775, George III declares the colonies in rebellion. He also did two other things at roughly that time, neither one of which helped the situation or certainly helped to smooth it over at all. So number one, two months later in October of 1775, he stated in Parliament that the American rebellion was, quote, “carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire,” and this is October 1775; you’re not in 1776 yet. The King explained that “the authors and promoters of this desperate conspiracy. . . meant only to amuse, by vague expressions of attachment to the parent state, and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me, whilst they are preparing for a general revolt.” Okay. First of all, it sounds like he actually saw that Petition. Right? Yeah, yeah. They’re claiming we’re so loyal to you and then at the same time there is a “desperate conspiracy” lurking.
So the King is arguing that actually, already they’re planning revolt, and he says you could see this because the colonists are raising troops, because they’d seized the public revenue, because they were trying to seize governmental powers. Not all members of Parliament agreed with this sort of conspiracy theory on the part of the King. Those who supported the American cause argued that the American colonies had not yet declared themselves in revolt. They had not said that they were rebelling; they had not said that they wanted independence yet; and by speaking as he was, the King could very well push the colonies into more radical action than they had yet declared in 1775. But the majority of Members of Parliament at the time supported the King’s statement, supported his actions.
So first he declares the colonies in rebellion, second he makes this bold statement in Parliament, and then finally third, in December of 1775 he proposed and Parliament passed a Prohibitory Act. And the Prohibitory Act prohibited commerce with the colonies, period, and said that colonial ships were no longer under British protection. So basically, colonial American ships are fair game on the open seas. Okay. That’s — Clearly, there is another bold sort of slap on the part of the Crown.
Scan of cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. / Library of Congress
When news of these actions arrived in the colonies in January and February of 1776, many colonists were pushed towards really serious consideration of independence for the first time. They’re at least considering it, aided of course, by Common Sense. The Prohibitory Act was particularly upsetting to many because it made it lawful to attack and raid American ships. As John Hancock put it in a pretty obvious statement, “The making all our Vessels lawful Prize don’t look like a reconciliation.” [laughs] Thank you, John Hancock. [laughs] And you’re right. John Adams went further, stating that the Prohibitory Act should be called, quote, “the act of independency,” because it “makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties.”
Despite that kind of statement, it is important to remember, regardless of how logical even at this moment independence seems to us, we still need to go through a process here. We’re still — It’s still not an obvious choice, and there were lots of questions hovering with the mere thought of independence. What kind of a future does declaring independence hold? Many well realized that that kind of a declaration would bring with it a devastating war with Great Britain, death and destruction of various kinds, and then quite possibly, even probably, defeat.
And on top of these pretty logical fears, even as independence seemed — at least it’s part of debate if not absolutely looming on the horizon — most colonists still assumed they’re fighting for British rights despite the fact that clearly their understanding of the British constitution and colonial rights is differing by this point from the understanding of those same things in England. Most colonists still had so deep a connection with the mother country that independence almost felt like a physical condition. And John Dickinson, who was a moderate at this period, basically put that into words and said that by declaring independence the colonies were being “torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce,” so it’s almost a physical ripping away.
So this is the atmosphere in which Common Sense comes out, and by swaying large portions of the people towards independence obviously that pamphlet is extremely important. One of the most important things about it is that because it swayed large groups of people — it wasn’t just a highfalutin’ political pamphlet written for the elite, but it really, as I mentioned already, was for the masses — that it enabled the Continental Congress to consider independence and ultimately to move toward independence as representatives of the popular will. Right? So Common Sense is swaying the people, and so the Continental Congress now is basically acting on the popular will. Some who favored independence actually wanted to distribute Common Sense at the Congress’s expense, since it was so useful in arousing public sentiment to move towards independence.
The General Populace’s Thoughts on Cries for Independence
The Boston lawyer, John Adams, distributed the Massachusetts Circular Letter to all the colonies denouncing Parliament’s action. / Library of Congress
Now I want to turn at this point to something that often gets left behind or left out when we talk about declaring independence, but it’s actually really crucial and in a way I think it’s really at the center of the story. And what I want to talk about is what people generally in the colonies thought about independence, because obviously it’s not only guys in the Second Continental Congress who are debating, discussing and considering independence. And even there, there was great recognition that they’re acting on behalf of the larger populace. Many colonial delegations felt compelled to have direct orders from the people of their colony before taking this kind of an enormous step.
And there’s a book by Pauline Maier which is titled American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence and it makes this point really well, and this sort of larger point that I’m going to make here is partly drawn from her book. And she emphasizes that the Continental Congress wasn’t the sole focal point for discussion of independence, and she explains in her book that while she was studying what was going on in the colonies during the months of April, May, June, and July of 1776 she actually discovered over ninety other declarations of independence, all of them written by local communities or towns or at conventions representing individual colonies.
And as she states in her book, these local declarations of independence get us as close as we can to the voice of the colonial public on the eve of independence. And actually just looking at the process of creating these local declarations reveals a vast amount of information about how the people at large were mobilized; how seriously many colonies took the idea that the people at large had to request independence, that the delegates in the Continental Congress were representing them in just the way I suppose that the colonists felt Parliament was not.
So for example, in Massachusetts the assembly asked individual towns throughout the colony to have meetings to discuss — and this is a quote from the document that the assembly sent to all of these towns, “if the honorable Continental Congress should decide that, for the safety of the United Colonies, it was necessary to declare them independent of Great Britain, would they ‘solemnly engage with their Lives and Fortunes to Support the Congress in the Measure?” Okay. So the assembly is sending this and saying, ‘Towns, you need to consider this resolution. If the Continental Congress decides that it makes sense to declare independence, will you actually support that with your lives and your fortunes? Is that something you’re in favor of?’
Obviously, it’s being treated like, really in a sense, a personal decision, a highly significant decision. Colonists are asked — are being asked by this statement to join in groups and discuss independence and decide what it is they think should happen next. And clearly, that kind of statement also reveals that they’re aware of the seriousness and they’re aware — I mean, ultimately, this is an act of treason that’s being debated here.
Rhode Island, 1776 / Wikimedia Commons
Now the Massachusetts assembly thought that — they’re asking towns to vote — that this might not be necessarily a really lengthy process, since already there’s a lot of circulating talk about maybe what should come next, but actually it wasn’t until July that all of the towns reported themselves in favor of independence. The process took that long, it took months, because people actually were seriously debating the issue. As a man from one town observed, independence was, quote, “the greatest and most important question that ever came before this town.”
Now of course by the time that every town had reported what it thought in Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, the Congress had already decided in favor of independence, but the people were a part of this decision-making process. And if the first towns from Massachusetts had not supported independence, the Massachusetts delegates might have had a hard time promoting it in Philadelphia, so it mattered.
In Maryland as well, there was widespread participation in this decision about whether independence ought to be declared, and individual popular declarations supporting independence there were possibly even more important than in Massachusetts, because the Maryland congressional delegation was undecided in what it thought about independence. And it wasn’t until the Maryland government received these declarations of independence from towns in Maryland that they decided to instruct the delegates in the Congress to support independence.
Rhode Island did not have such widespread participation. There was a logic to what went on in Rhode Island. Apparently, in Rhode Island the legislature did consider asking towns what they thought about independence, but they did a little investigation first and they discovered that it was possible that a few towns in Rhode Island might vote against independence. Okay. Rhode Island wisely thought: if we ask people what they think and they say, ‘We don’t want independence,’ this could be a bad thing, and so they decided that wasn’t necessarily the best plan; it certainly wouldn’t help the common cause.
Now when I discuss colonial legislatures at this point, it’s important to realize that most of the royal colonial governments had pretty much collapsed by this point. The Continental Congress in May of 1776 thus instructed the colonies to form new governments, and so roughly throughout this period — some of the colonies had already started doing this before May, some of them waited until May — but throughout this period, in a lot of the colonies there was some kind of a convention debating what basically the new government, and really in a way, the new constitution of these colonies should be in the absence of having a royal presence. So they’re like little mini colonial constitutional conventions, and it was these conventions often that were receiving these local declarations of independence.
And to some people in the colonies it was actually this resolution asking the colonies to create their own governments that constituted the real declaration of independence, and you can even hear echoes of the later official Declaration in the resolution itself asking the colonies to make their own governments. It has a preamble, a very radical preamble, that’s certainly more radical than anything that the Congress had said thus far:
“Whereas His Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas no answer whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Brittain has been, or is likely to be given, but the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies … it is necessary, that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies for the preservation of internal peace, virtue and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties.”
So that’s a radical statement. To Adams — To John Adams as well as many others, this pretty much constituted a declaration of independence even though it didn’t declare independence officially, and it’s significant that in that preface Congress isn’t attacking the King’s ministers; they’re not attacking Parliament. They’re attacking the King himself, which is almost as good as a formal declaration of revolt.
Meanwhile, in the colonies the individual towns are debating what they want to do about independence. They’re expressing their opinions in written statements that, as Pauline Maier points out, were remarkably alike in tone and content. A lot of them listed the same grievances and had the same kind of sense of betrayal at how the King had betrayed them. Most of them mentioned the contempt with which the King had received their attempts at reconciliation. They mentioned recent violence and destruction of American property by British troops. They of course mentioned the Prohibitory Act, which declared the colonists out of British protection. They mentioned German mercenaries hired by George III to fight the colonists.
And most of them had sort of a personal tone that they adopted towards the King, blaming him personally for the present state of affairs and expressing great sadness at their realization that their monarch basically had fallen to this level and allowed this to happen. Some petitions went even further, suggesting the type of government that they prefer to be there in place of the monarchy, and in one way or another some of these declarations specified they wanted to establish a republican government in the colonies; they wanted governments grounded on popular will and actual representation.
So what we’re seeing here is average people in towns throughout the colonies immersed in the current state of affairs, committing themselves personally to a course of action, expressing their ideas about what government should be, and personally taking part in the political process in a radical kind of a way. So obviously we’re not talking about a couple of dozen men in a room in Philadelphia. Now, news of these declarations written in May, June and even as late as July helped push the Continental Congress towards independence, so let’s move back to Congress.
Debates on Drafting a Formal Declaration of Independence
Rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting / American Treasures of the Library of Congress
On June 7, 1776, Virginia took a major step forward by making a resolution that it sent to its delegates in Philadelphia via Richard Henry Lee — he was one of the delegates — and the resolution from Virginia said that the delegates should promote independence because the colonies, quote, “are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent States.” Bang. So there you have it. But the response — Okay. There it is, we should be independent, the resolution that’s going to push them to debate independence.
The response to that resolution is a reminder that there were a lot of other things that were more pressing at the time. So Richard Henry Lee presents this to Congress and Congress says, ‘We got to put it off until tomorrow because we actually have more important things that we need to debate today first, so we’ll talk about independence tomorrow.’ Thank you, Richard Henry Lee. On to these other matters.
So the next day, June 8, debate on independence got under way, and those who were less enthusiastic about independence, men like John Dickinson, who is moderate in his politics, or James Wilson, also of Pennsylvania, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, they said that they were friends to the idea but that the time wasn’t yet right. Some colonial delegations weren’t yet ready to declare independence. They didn’t have permission to declare it from their home governments, and forcing the issue might force these colonies to secede from what was already a relatively weak colonial union or so they argued. So — and disunion — if that were to happen, if they were to push independence and a colony should pull out, disunion would be disastrous to their cause, not only because it would hurt the cause, but it would certainly not encourage foreign nations to potentially help these little colonies in fighting against Great Britain.
So this is what Rutledge — Edward Rutledge of South Carolina wrote on June 10.
“The congress sat till 7 o’clock this evening in consequence of a motion of R[ichard] H[enry] Lee’s rendering ourselves free and independent States. The sensible part of the House opposed the Motion…. they saw no Wisdom in a Declaration of independence, nor any other Purpose to be enforced by it, but placing ourselves in the Power of those with whom we mean to treat, giving our Enemy Notice of our Intentions before we have taken any steps to execute them and thereby enabling them to counteract us in our Intentions and rendering ourselves ridiculous in the Eyes of foreign powers by attempting to bring them into a Union with us before we had united with each other.”
Portrait of Edward Rutledge, a Signer of the American Declaration of Independence / National Park Service
Okay. There’s a lot of strong arguments Rutledge is presenting, but of course on the other side of the spectrum, those who supported independence argued that without a formal declaration of independence no nation would be willing to aid the colonies; the colonies were basically independent already; the matter needs to be discussed, needs to be pushed forward.
Lack of agreement and the importance of the decision led Congress to postpone the decision until the first week of July so that individual colonies could decide on a course of action. And in the meantime, so no time would be lost, they appointed a committee to compose a written statement formally declaring colonial independence, and the committee included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, the greatest hits — Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston, one of the many Livingstons of New York.
And ultimately the committee appointed Jefferson to draft the document and he worked during the last two weeks of June in 1776. Now as I mentioned at the start of the lecture, in later years, when Adams and Jefferson were retired presidential types, lots of people wrote to them asking, ‘So tell us what really happened with the Declaration of Independence. What was it like? Why did you do X? Did you really do X? What was he like?’ — sort of all the things that you would want to ask if you could ask these people, ‘What really happened?’ And both men offered accounts of the writing of the Declaration and their accounts do not necessarily agree — and they’re also pretty in character for each one of these men, particularly John Adams’ account of what happened with the decision about who was going to write the Declaration of Independence.
And actually in 1822, Adams wrote a pretty lengthy explanation of how Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration. I just want to offer you a little piece of it, because it’s actually a pretty amazing little re-creation. So Adams writes in his letter, “You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of the Committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence.” Okay. So there is what the person wrote. So Adams, why did you pick that young new guy to write this document? Adams says,
“I answer . . . Mr. Jefferson came into Congress, in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation, not even Samuel Adams was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others.”
Okay. So in the end the committee’s voting who should write it, and Adams and Jefferson get the most votes to write the declaration, so they’re made, according to Adams, like a little subcommittee of Adams and Jefferson, and now this subcommittee supposedly is going to draft the Declaration. So Adams continues, “The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught. I said ‘I will not.'”
And what I’m going to be reading from here now — it’s my favorite part of the story — he wrote a little script with what Jefferson says and what he responds. He’s no longer even himself in the letter. He’s just recording: he said and then I said, and that he said and then I said. So Jefferson says, ‘Adams, you should write it,’ and Adams says, “I will not.” “You should do it,” Jefferson insists. “Oh! no,” says Adams. “Why will you not?,” asks Jefferson. “You ought to do it.” Its like he’s writing a film. [laughs] He’s already imagining: the movie of my life. [laughs] If movies existed, I would be imagining the movie of my life. “You ought to do it,” says Jefferson. “I will not.” “Why?” “Reasons enough.” “What can be your reasons?”
Okay. This is Adams’ response. “Reason first — You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second — I am obnoxious, [laughs/laughter] suspected, and unpopular.” Oh, [laughs] poor John Adams. I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. Don’t make me write the document. “You are very much otherwise.” “Reason third — You can write ten times better than I can.” “Well,” Adams has Jefferson respond, “if you are decided, I will do it as well as I can.” Okay. That’s part of a really lengthy, great letter by Adams.
Jefferson’s account is much less humorous and actually briefer, and he writes in 1823 to James Madison and he says, “No such thing as a subcommittee was proposed” [laughs] — it’s like — oops, a basic disagreement — “but they unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught.” Okay, a little disagreement between the two guys which they never really agreed upon. And then he goes on to discuss in this letter whether the ideas in the Declaration were new or not, and he says, ‘No, no. American minds,’.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800 / White House Blue Room
Okay. Regardless of the precise details as to whether there was or wasn’t a subcommittee, Jefferson did draft the Declaration. He submitted it to the others for comment. They commented on it. They sort of discussed it amongst themselves. You’ll get some chance in section to actually talk about some of the real specifics of the document, the Declaration of Independence.
For the moment, I’ll just mention briefly what were some of Jefferson’s sources. Right? He’s sitting in Philadelphia. He has basically two weeks — talk about a paper deadline — to write the Declaration of Independence. What is going to use? He’s pretty pressed for time, so logically he turned to whatever he could for fodder, and two notable sources were both Virginia documents logically enough. He drafted a constitution for Virginia, since the colony is in the middle of doing that and along with everything else, and that ended up being a source for him of some of the grievances, the long list of grievances in the Declaration. He pulled some of them from that. And then the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was also part of this constitution-making process, helped contribute to the preamble of the Declaration.
Now of course, Jefferson was careful not just to focus on Virginia words, Virginia charges, Virginia things, because obviously the document is supposed to represent all of the colonies. So for example, when you read the Declaration, you could see some of the things he’s citing happened in Massachusetts — and some of them actually happened in other colonies as well. It needs to be something that is coming from some united expression of the colonial will.
One of the passages that ultimately did not end up displaying colonial unity not surprisingly concerned slavery — so in Jefferson’s draft he actually has a passage that charges the King — that the King, quote, had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Okay. So that’s a notable attempt to blame the King for slavery, but the passage ultimately gets stricken out by the Congress, in part for obvious reasons. Right? The South is not going to support this.
But also, ultimately Jefferson’s declaration as far as slavery is concerned had some tortured logic in it, because it first attacks the King for creating slavery, for transporting slaves to America, and then attacks him for offering them freedom if they fight for the British. You inflicted slavery upon us and you are threatening to free the slaves. Okay. Continental Congress said, ‘Okay. Not only is the South not really able to grasp this at this particular moment, but this doesn’t entirely match up, Jefferson.’ So in a sense his ambiguity and ambivalence reflected general ambiguity and ambivalence.
But in the end, the total effect of all of these charges was to suggest that the King had sort of de-kinged himself. He had displaced himself — that he and not the colonies, had brought events to where they now stood.
Editing the Declaration and Conclusion
The signatures on the Declaration of Independence / Rotunda of the National Archives, Washington
Now, I think generally we and also often scholars tend to really focus on the preamble of the Declaration, but in fact at the time, it was the specific charges against the King that were considered to be the real meat of the document. The preamble was actually just supposed to be a preamble to the real charges against the King, which were the radical part of the document at the time. And since this document was intended possibly to be a declaration for foreign audiences as well as domestic audiences, it was important that that preamble be a statement, a broad, sweeping statement of epic proportions, to inspire people to support the cause.
The committee’s draft ultimately was presented to Congress on June 28, and then debating and editing began on July 1. Some of the changes had to do with specific word choices — so for example was the King really guilty of, quote, “unremitting injuries”? Congress preferred “repeated injuries.” Okay. That was the level of editing taking place with the Declaration. So they thought well, “repeated” is a little less extreme than “unremitting.” That word gets changed.
Not all of the changes were intended to tame the document. Sometimes Congress made some of Jefferson’s charges more extreme, as when they added to Jefferson’s statement about foreign mercenaries words that described it — the act of sending them to the colonies — as, quote, “scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages.” And then as I mentioned before, they struck the entire passage on slavery. For the — For many southern delegates pretty much it was a deal breaker, and it happens so often in this period. We’ll certainly come up with it again at the — towards the end of this course. The issue of slavery comes up. It can’t be dealt with. People don’t know how to deal with it, particularly the Southerners, and it keeps getting shunted to the side, and so in a sense that’s what happens here.