It was hot in Philadelphia in June of 1776. Summer’s heat often seems more sweltering in the city than the countryside.
Situated in the second floor room of a brick house at Second and Market streets in Philadelphia, far from his pastoral mountain home in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson balanced his special portable writing box and collapsible desk on his lap as he sat in his revolving Windsor chair making himself comfortable to write what would become America’s signature document.
Though he was part of a five member committee charged with drafting what would become known as the "Declaration of Independence," the document proclaiming the American colonies’ intent to sever ties to Britain, Jefferson worked alone, engaging in the solitary art of a writer.
Jefferson arrived at this task after Richard Henry Lee proposed to the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776 that the body pass a resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States."
After a few days of debate, it was decided a vote on the declaration would be held in early July. A committee made up of Jefferson and fellow statesmen John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingstone was put to work to create the colonies’ declaration of independence.
The committee named Jefferson to pen the draft of the declaration, though the circumstances of how this decision was arrived at are lost to time.
However, Adams, in later life, wrote that Jefferson at first suggested that Adams write the draft, but Adams demurred stating he felt Jefferson should author the document.
According to Adams’ account, Jefferson asked, "Why?’
Adams replied, "Reasons enough."
"What can be your reasons?" Jefferson wanted to know.
"Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can," said Adams.
Though this is how Adams remembered the decision, Jefferson did not back up this account, instead, mentioning only that his role as writer was a committee decision. The reasons for Adams’ self-deprecation in his memory of the event are known only to himself as there is no solid indication Adams lacked the respect of the other members of the Continental Congress.
So Jefferson set forth in his work at his special writing desk and chair, both designed by the clever Virginian himself and built by a Philadelphia cabinetmaker.
The opening lines of the work are well known to most Americans: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
"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…"
The declaration goes on to lay out a rational argument and justification for the formation of a new, free and independent nation and then lists in a legal fashion, by my count, 18 "injuries and usurpations" that the King of Great Britain had visited upon the American colonies.
Jefferson presented his draft to the committee, which made some changes, most notably, it is believed, Franklin’s suggestion that Jefferson’s original "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
The committee submitted its draft of the declaration, then known as "The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America," to the Continental Congress on June 28. By July 2 the Congress approved Lee’s original resolution for independence and then for two days debated the draft of the declaration before approving it on July 4. The declaration was enscribed on parchment and on Aug. 2 those still present in Philadelphia signed it with the rest signing later.
Jefferson was so proud of his work on the Declaration of Independence that his writing of the renowned document is the first of three notable achievements of his life he had engraved as the epitaph on his tombstone – the other two being that he was also author of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and that he was the father of the University of Virginia. Curiously, he felt his two terms as president not worthy of mention at his grave.
The declaring of the nation’s independence through the written word gave the act weight, putting the young country’s intentions in ink on paper for all the world, and all time, to see. It’s one thing to speak one’s mind and toss words about freely in the air where the syllables float off into space unattached to the speaker. It’s quite another to write one’s thoughts down and sign one’s name to the words, because doing so gives the words depth, it gives the words meaning, and it gives the words importance because the effort is made to give them permanence, credibility, and accountability.
It takes courage and conviction to stand by your words when they are formally written down. Fifty-six men signed the declaration, most notably John Hancock who wrote his name larger than the rest so, as the story goes, England’s King George III would not need his spectacles to read it. They signed knowing that if the American Revolution failed, theirs would be the first necks fitted for the royal hangman’s noose.
This Independence Day take some time to read Jefferson’s soaring words in the Declaration of Independence that laid the foundation for the nation’s ideals.
Remember Independence Day is the people’s day.
Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.
(Sources: "Thomas Jefferson" by Norman K. Risjord; "Benjamin Franklin" by Walter Isaacson; "John Adams" by David McCullough; "The Reader’s Companion to American History" edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty; and "The Declaration of Independence.")