- In August and September of 1776, New York City was the locus of the Revolution and the place where the Americans nearly lost the war. Russell Shorto, who wrote the definitive book on the Dutch in Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World, recounts these events and provides a terrific virtual tour of the city in When New York City Was a (Literal) Battlefield (The New York Times, 19-Nov-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.
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.
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.
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).
Since the heady moment when he married Martha Custis in 1759, combining their estates into one of the preeminent holdings in northern Virginia, everything Washington touched had turned to brass. He had failed repeatedly to grow profitable tobacco crops. In London his leaf had acquired an unshakable reputation for mediocrity. Meanwhile the expenses of maintaining a great planter’s lifestyle, while keeping up a slave labor force and several plantations, had proved unrelenting. His own debtors — former comrades-in-arms who unhesitatingly touched him for loans, neighbors with whom he ran accounts, tenants who owed him rent — were slow to pay, and sometimes never did; yet he was too tightly bound by the expectations of gentlemanly behavior to refuse a loan when asked, or to press a debtor insistently when payment fell due. By 1763 Washington found himself deep in debt, doubting that he would ever extricate himself by growing tobacco, and casting about to find some way out of his predicament.