Jefferson’s Early Career
Born into one of the most prominent families in Virginia (on his mother’s side), Jefferson studied at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and began practicing law in 1767. In 1768, Jefferson stood as a candidate for the Virginia House of Burgesses; he entered the legislature just as opposition was building to the taxation policies of the British government. That same year, Jefferson began building Monticello, his hilltop estate in Albemarle County; he would later greatly expand his holdings in land and slaves through his marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772.
In 1774, Jefferson wrote “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” in which he claimed that the colonies were tied to the king only by voluntary bonds of loyalty. Published as a political pamphlet without Jefferson’s permission, this document extended Jefferson’s reputation beyond Virginia, and he became known as an eloquent voice for the cause of American independence from Britain. In the spring of 1775, shortly after skirmishes broke out between colonial militiamen and British soldiers at Lexington and Concord, the Virginia legislature sent Jefferson as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
At the Second Continental Congress
The 33-year-old Jefferson may have been a shy, awkward public speaker in Congressional debates, but he used his skills as a writer and correspondent to support the patriotic cause. By the late spring of 1776, more and more colonists favored an official and permanent break from Great Britain; in mid-May, eight of the 13 colonies said they would support independence. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia formally presented a resolution before the Congress, stating that “[T]hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
On June 11, Jefferson was appointed to a five-man committee–alongside John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York–that was charged with drafting a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain. Jefferson was the only southerner on the committee, and had arrived in Philadelphia accompanied by three of his many slaves. Still, it was he who was given the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence, which would become the foremost statement of human liberty and equality ever written. According to an account Jefferson wrote in 1823, the other members of the committee “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught [sic]. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections…I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress.”
“We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident…”
The body of Jefferson’s draft contained a list of grievances against the British crown, but it was its preamble that would strike the deepest chords in the minds and hearts of future Americans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The Continental Congress reconvened on July 1, and the following day 12 of the 13 colonies adopted Lee’s resolution for independence. The process of consideration and revision of Jefferson’s declaration (including Adams’ and Franklin’s corrections) continued on July 3 and into the late morning of July 4, during which Congress deleted and revised some one-fifth of its text. The delegates made no changes to that key preamble, however, and the basic document remained Jefferson’s words. Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence later on the Fourth of July (though most historians now accept that the document was not signed until August 2).
A Complicated Legacy
Thomas Jefferson wasn’t recognized as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence until the 1790s; until then the document was presented as a collective effort by the entire Continental Congress. Jefferson had returned to the Virginia legislature in the late summer of 1776 and in 1785 had succeeded Franklin as minister to France. He served as Secretary of State in the cabinet of President George Washington, and later emerged as a leader of a Republican party that championed state’s rights and opposed the strong centralized government favored by Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists. Elected as the nation’s third president in 1800, Jefferson would serve two terms, during which the young nation doubled its territory through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and struggled to maintain neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars between England and France.
Despite his many later accomplishments, Jefferson’s principal legacy to the United States arguably remains the Declaration of Independence, the eloquent expression of liberty, equality and democracy upon which the country was founded. His critics, however, point to Jefferson’s admitted racism, and the negative views (common to wealthy Virginia planters of the time) that he expressed about African Americans during his lifetime. Meanwhile, recent DNA evidence seems to support much-disputed claims that Jefferson had a longstanding intimate relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and that the couple had several children together. Given these circumstances, Jefferson’s legacy as history’s most eloquent proponent of human freedom and equality–justly earned by his words in the Declaration of Independence–remains complicated by the inconsistencies of his life as a slave owner.