Drafting the Declaration of Independence, Part I

When Thomas Jefferson’s mother died on 31 March 1776, he had already been absent from Continental Congress for three months, and now he would continue on at his Monticello plantation for one more. During these four months this obsessively disciplined writer wrote almost nothing. Not a single letter. Not even an entry in his Garden Book, where he always cataloged what was growing, along with notes and observations — and it was springtime.

John Hancock commissioned this portrait of Washington in gratitude for his victory at Boston

In Boston, General Washington and the nascent Continental Army had forced the evacuation of the British from their nearly year-old stranglehold on the city (17-Mar-1776). In Braintree, Massachusetts, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband — John Adams, steeped in committee work and behind-the-scenes politicking in Philadelphia — I long to hear that you have declared an independency … (31-Mar-1776). On that same day Jefferson tersely records that his mother died at eight o'clock this morning, in the 57th year of age, after which he experienced the most severe migraine of his life. It continued for days, incapacitating him from sunrise to sunset.

On 13 April he turned 33.

Jefferson at 43, while in London — the earliest-known image

Clearly retrenching from political engagement, as he would periodically do throughout his life, there is no clear picture of what Jefferson was up to. He was concerned about his fragile wife, Martha. He had a complicated relationship with his mother. Yet it seems that this outer-directed man curled up within himself and reached out to no one (except, perhaps, privately, without record). Fawn M. Brodie speculates in her psychological biography, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974), that for Jefferson this was a period of obscure but intense personal conflict which had included real, if temporary, abandonment of the revolutionary scene. And that given the burst of creative activity that followed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his mother’s death had been in a most critical respect not so much a loss as a liberation.

Declaration House, recreation of the building where Jefferson roomed

Jefferson finally returned to Philadelphia on 14 May 1776. The following day Virginia voted for its delegates in Continental Congress to introduce a motion for independence. Jefferson wrote to a friend (17-May-1776), I have been so long out of the political world that I am almost a new man in it.

During the next six weeks, while attending Congress and performing additional duties on committee, Jefferson drafted a constitution for the new state of Virginia; and wrote, edited, and prepared a final draft of the Declaration of Independence for Congress (28-Jun-1776).

part 1  |  part 2  |  part 3

JDN | 4-Jul-2014

Jefferson was in most respects a typical slaveholder. Although he always condemned slavery, he did own one of the largest slave populations in Virginia. Upon the division of his father-in-law’s estate in 1774 he became, in fact, the second-largest slaveholder in Albemarle County. Thereafter the number of his slaves remained around two hundred — with increases through births offset by periodic sales to pay off debts. Jefferson was known to be a good master, reluctant to break up families or to sell slaves except for delinquency or at their own request. Nevertheless, between 1784 and 1794 he disposed of 161 people by sale or gift. It is true that Jefferson was averse to separating young children from their parents; but once slave boys or girls reached the age of ten or twelve and their working lives began, they were no longer children in Jefferson’s mind.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)