At the Second Continental Congress during the summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was charged with drafting a formal statement justifying the 13 North American colonies' break with Great Britain. A member of a five-man committee that also included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson drew up a draft and included Franklin's and Adams' corrections. At the time, the Declaration of Independence was regarded as a collective effort of the Continental Congress; Jefferson was not recognized as its principal author until the 1790s.
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Did You Know?
After leaving Washington, Thomas Jefferson spent the last two decades of his life at Monticello. He died on July 4, 1826--hours before his good friend and former political rival John Adams--on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
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."
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Jefferson is an insightful 2-hour presentation on HISTORY which examines his many identities and asks viewers to answer for themselves: who was the real Thomas Jefferson, and what is his most lasting legacy in our world today?
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