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"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 July 4 (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.
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