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

There is a symmetry between the folly of Burgoyne’s march south to Saratoga and that of Cornwallis’s march north to Yorktown. Military historians debate why Burgoyne risked marching south from Fort Edward in the same way that they question why Cornwallis advanced north beyond North Carolina into Virginia. Although Cornwallis had none of the outward vanity of Burgoyne, the two men were similar in that they were both junior generals and neither of them was commander in chief of the British army in America. Both blamed their subsequent failures on rigid orders and insufficient latitude. They both expected to march through predominantly friendly territory. They both ignored the chain of command and went over the heads of their superiors to communicate independently with Lord George Germain. They both allowed their supply lines to become overextended and their forces suffered harassment by enemy militia. They presided over the two most decisive defeats of the American Revolutionary War.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (2013)