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THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
though past, is present, and essential
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  • If slavery was a neutral thing for most colonials and early Americans, the Founding Fathers are on record with a position. On the one end Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were against it; in the middle Thomas Jefferson, while believing that enslaved blacks should be free, also believed they were inferior — and never found a way to divorce himself and his way of life from his Monticello plantation and his little mountain of slavery.

     

    There is a more nuanced middle inhabited by James Madison — slave-owner, political philosopher and practical repositioner, three-fifths-er, and Father of the Constitution — who truly believed that Africans were equal to whites yet never found a way to let go of the peculiar institution enjoyed by the South. See Noah Feldman on James Madison’s Lessons in Racism (29-Oct-2017) for a look at Madison and his evolving political positions vs. his unchanging personal one.

  • A team performing restoration of the wine-cellar at Liberty Hall Museum recently uncovered wine dating back to 1796. During a six-month renovation, three crates and 42 large casks — demijohns — were discovered, including bottles labeled Robert Lenox of Philadelphia 1796. See ABC News (11-Jul-2017).

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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).

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JDN|4-Jul-2014

The First Congress faced a unique challenge, and those congressmen and senators who gathered in New York in the spring of 1789 were awed by what lay ahead of them. Not only would members of the Congress have to pass some promised amendments to the new Constitution, but they would have to fill out the bare framework of a government that the Philadelphia Convention had created, including the organization of the executive and judicial departments. Some therefore saw the First Congress as something in the nature of a second constitutional convention.

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