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Jefferson’s Expression of the American Mind

ISSUE:  Autumn 1974

It is the indispensable duty of the supreme magistrate to consider himself as acting for the whole community, and obliged to sup­ port its dignity, and dispense to the people, with justice, their various rights, as he would be faithful to the great trust ·reposed in him. Cicero, “De Officiis,” L.1, C.34 (Epigraph chosen for Jefferson’s “Summary View,” 1774).

As we look back upon the first and greatest ordeal of dismemberment suffered by the British Empire, we can see clearly enough from our vantage point how very acute George the Third was when he observed to Lord North in 1774: “The dye is now cast, the Colonies must either submit or triumph.” For another year or so, to be sure, the colonies would continue to petition the King, to protest their unswerving allegiance, and to reaffirm their rights as men and as British subjects. But 1774 was the year of decision. In that spring, when coercive measures were being enacted into law by Parliament, the seeds of rebellion were sown and the bitter harvests of civil war were made inevitable. As late as 1775 Edmund Burke could empty the House of Commons and enthrall subsequent generations with his four-hour speech on conciliation, but this magnificent oratorical performance offered little save an appeal to understanding and magnanimity in the use of power. It also evaded the central question.

For neither then nor ever did Burke challenge the almost universally accepted view of the constitution of the empire as summed up by Blackstone in the dictum that “There is and must be in every state a supreme, irresistible, absolute, un­controuled authority … in which the rights of sovereignty reside…. [T]his supreme power is, by the Constitution of Great Britain, vested in the King, Lords, and Commons…. [T]herefore, the… Acts of Parliament have… a binding force on the American Colonies, they composing a part of the British Empire.” This doctrine, rejecting some of the principles of John Locke and embracing the absolutes of Sir Edward Coke, was not denied even by members of the opposition, who could only urge repeal or modification of retaliatory measures and proclaim, as Chatham did, that for Parliament to tax the colonies was “contrary to all principles of justice and civil policy.” But in the final analysis taxation was not the issue. The ultimate question was whether, as the Declaratory Act of 1766 explicitly affirmed, Parliament “had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make… laws and statutes… to bind the colonies and· people of America … in all cases whatsoever.” On this constitutional abstraction, sanctioned by history, by the opinions of England’s greatest jurists, and, it must be conceded, by long and tacit acquiescence on the part of the colonies, the government of Lord North took its stand. For by what means, asked the King’s first minister, could “authority… be maintained but by Establishing that Authority from Parliament?”

The question was rhetorical. But if George the Third and his ministers had read “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” a pamphlet published in Virginia about the time the King recognized that the issue was irrevocably joined, they might have found a quite different though to them incomprehensible answer to Lord North’s question. At this moment, however, the attention of the most powerful monarch in the world, whose navies roamed every ocean protecting the vast commercial wealth pouring into the metropolis from the eastern and western hemispheres, was focused on the province of Massachusetts. This is understandable. For it was there that city mobs had pillaged the home of the governor, assaulted British soldiers, and resisted royal authority in a manner regarded even by so conciliatory a minister as the Earl of Dartmouth as “clearly treasonable upon the principles of every government upon earth.” When supreme authority is challenged by violent disobedience, as the human record before and since has amply demonstrated, those in positions of power are not apt to respond with wisdom, moderation, and magnanimous statesmanship. So it was with the policies pursued by the King, Lords, and Commons in the spring of 1774.

Thus, while George the Third kept himself extraordinarily well informed about men and events in Massachusetts, believing American resistance was confined to that province and to a small band of ambitious and designing demagogues, he and his ministers failed to look southward or to listen attentively to reasoned expositions of what Americans generally had come to regard as their common cause. This, too, is understandable. Virginians, more closely linked to the mother country by ties of affection, commerce, law, and religion than any other of the King’s dominions, seemed least likely to embrace ideas subversive of legally constituted authority. Yet here in 1774, in the piedmont hills of the oldest and most extensive of all the British colonies, a young planter thirty-one years of age gave the response to Lord North’s question that in the unfolding of time would be validated on both sides of the Atlantic. That answer, distinctively American in its view of the constitution of the empire, was altogether at variance with the construction placed upon it in Whitehall and other centers of power.

The author of this response was described in the Williamsburg edition of the “Summary View” as “A Native, and Member of the House of Burgesses.” But informed persons throughout the colonies soon became aware that behind this veil of anonymity stood Thomas Jefferson, who at the outset was one of the boldest advocates of his country’s cause and who remained throughout life its most steadfast champion, identifying that cause as the holy experiment “which was to decide ultimately whether man is capable of self-government.” Jefferson was a rising young lawyer, thoroughly grounded in Bracton and Coke but skeptical from the be­ ginning of what he later called “the honeyed Mansfieldism” of Blackstone. He had prepared himself well, first of all by quitting college at nineteen because that center of civil and religious orthodoxy offered him little except in the presence of one teacher, William Small, who opened up to Jefferson the expanding horizons of science.

For the next five years, so everyone has assumed, Jefferson was engaged in preparing himself for the practice of law, though this was a time when so unstudious a person as Patrick Henry and so cogent a mind as John Marshall could gain admission to the bar after preparation of only a few weeks’ duration. The profession of law was indeed an object that Jefferson at nineteen began to seek under the guidance of George Wythe, a teacher whose greatest lesson was the example he set by his own virtue, republican principles, and nobility of character. But in fact, in these critical years from 1762 to 1767, Jefferson was educating himself for statesmanship, putting himself through such a grueling course of study in history, ethics, politics, literature, science, and other branches of knowledge as he could have obtained at no institution of higher learning in America. Under the stimulating rays of the American Enlightenment, which differed from its European counterpart in the pragmatic insistence that political freedom is the indispensable prerequisite to all other forms of liberty, Jefferson brought every authoritarian dogma to the test of rational inquiry. With Bacon, Newton, and Locke as his guiding constellation, he did not hesitate even in his nonage to challenge the holdings of a long line of civil and ecclesiastical courts that Christianity was a part of the common law, opinions which to him only exemplified the manner in which church and state, mitre and sceptre, had acted as allies over the centuries in a common effort to suppress doctrines thought to be heretical or seditious. But, while unintimidated by authority, Jefferson gained from the society in which he was born as well as from this intensive self-schooling in statecraft a lesson no doubt older than when Solon stated it as a maxim: that the prudent legislator never proposes more than the people are prepared to accept.

If we are impressed by the sheer stamina and intellectual discipline required for Jefferson’s self-imposed regimen of study, we can only stand in awe before one astonishing and unique record never as yet published—which proves that his purpose extended well beyond the practice of law. This is his meticulous and carefully annotated record of studies covering the centuries through which the Mother of Parliaments evolved just and practical rules for elected representatives to conduct their proceedings and, if necessary, to be held accountable. As he pored over such works as John Selden’s “Of the Judicature in Parliaments,” William Petyt’s “Lex Parliamentaria,” Sir. Robert Atkyns’ “Power, Jurisdiction and Priviledge of Parliament,” John Rush­ worth’s “Historical Collections,” and Sir Humphrey Mack­ worth’s “Vindication of the Rights of the Commons of England,” Jefferson carefully and systematically set down in this remarkable commonplace book of parliamentary law such still apposite affirmations as this one from the seventeenth century:

[T]he Commons declare it hath been the antient, constant, and undoubted right and usage of parliaments to question and complain of all persons of what degree soever, found grievous to the Commonwealth, in abusing the power and trust committed to them by the sovereign…. [T]he greater the persons are, the more proper for the undertaking and encounter of this High Court.

Jefferson had not only mastered the works of Locke, Sidney, and other classical writers on government: he had also made himself the best informed student in America on the rights, duties, and accountability of those elected to positions of public trust.

But this prolonged and concentrated study of law and government valuable as it was in establishing a solid foundation on which to build a career of public service, was in­ calculably augmented in value because Jefferson happened to be in exactly the right place at the right time. These five years of preparation for a public career found him at the capital of Virginia when colonists everywhere were being aroused by the policies of Grenville to examine their relationship to the empire in a manner none had theretofore anticipated. This was the first great debate to engage the attention and awaken the passions of all America, a time when, as John Adams remarked, the fundamental maxims of government were being discussed at every hearth and fireside in the land. As always on matters of the utmost moment touching basic principles of government, the American people were profoundly divided—a natural and indeed essential element of their character as a free people. But divided as they were over constitutional issues, they were yet united by the strongest of bonds—an awareness of their status as free men. As Edmund Burke would soon warn his colleagues in Parliament, “the seeds of liberty are universally found [in America], and nothing can eradicate them.” What made the debate all the more agonizing for the colonists was the knowledge that the seeds of liberty were the common inheritance of British subjects within the realm and throughout the empire.

But, planted here under beneficent skies and in a virgin soil, the old inherited seeds of justice and government by consent were given renewed vigor and an altered character by the favoring climate. The transformation had begun long before Jefferson entered upon his years of study and preparation. For at least half a century the colonists, having achieved virtual autonomy in governing themselves through their representative assemblies, had increasingly begun to think of themselves as Americans. There were, to be sure, wide and ineradicable economic, social, and religious differences between one colony and another and between one region and another. But even difference and diversity multiplied and strengthened the bonds of unity so subtly as to pass almost unnoticed. With Swedes on the Delaware, Dutch on the Hudson, Germans in Pennsylvania, Salzburgers in Georgia, Swiss in North Carolina, Huguenots in the north and south, and Scotch-Irish everywhere—all save those from Africa brought hither by the promise of a new beginning or by dictates of conscience—this diverse people was being prepared from the outset to demonstrate the immensely unifying force inherent in its extension of hospitality to those of differing origins and cultures. The unexplored west—mysterious, hostile, yet inviting in its vast unrealized abundance—gave all of the colonists the experience first of struggling against a common foe and then of embracing a promise, an experience which for over a century had brought forth one plan after another for intercolonial union and had prepared Americans as no other people ever had been to create here a new and practicable form of federalism. Even diversity in religion—Puritans, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Pietests, and dissenters of many doctrines and beliefs—strengthened the common bonds and prepared the way for Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, described by the Rev. Richard Price as “an example of legislative wisdom and liberality never before known.” This unifying power of religious diversity was never more succinctly stated than by Jefferson himself: “The maxim of civil government [is] reversed in that of religion, where it’s true form is ‘divided we stand, united we fall.’” But none of the various forces that had been for so long forming a distinctively American mind and character exerted so powerful a thrust or made the colonists so keenly aware of their identity as did the policies by which the British ministry initiated this first great debate in the years when young Jefferson was pre­ paring himself for leadership.

We can therefore easily imagine the eagerness with which he could turn from his study of Locke and Sidney to the discussions of the fundamental aims of government found in newspapers, pamphlets, and communications from committees of correspondence that poured into Williamsburg from transatlantic ships and from the post road running from New Hampshire to Georgia. The latter was itself a unifying force of immense potency, for while there were some thirty British colonies in the islands and on the mainland of North America and while protests against the Stamp Act arose from Quebec to St. Kitts, it is a symbolic fact that the thirteen provinces linked by the seaboard post road were the only ones that succeeded in welding themselves into a nation. Printing presses, colleges, and other agencies of public information were strung along this post road from one end to the other, thus facilitating the great debate over the nature of the British Empire and, in the process, making Jefferson’s cloistered studies in the 1760’s so astonishingly related to actuality. The beloved royalist governor, Fauquier, humanitarian and lover of science, also brought the young student close to the center of power by extending his hospitality. So, too, did his kinsmen, Peyton Randolph, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, and Richard Bland, one of the most learned constitutionalists in America. And there was Patrick Henry, spokesman for the new and growing attitudes of dissent in the West. All the world knows Jefferson stood at the entrance to the House of Burgesses and heard the sublime oratory on that memorable day in 1765 when Henry seemed to some almost treasonous in his argument that Virginians had always possessed the right of being governed by their own representatives in matters of taxation and internal police “and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any Person or Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly… has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.” There may or may not have been shouts of treason on that day, as Jefferson remembered half a century later, but there can be no doubt that he stood transfixed by Henry’s impassioned eloquence, being indelibly impressed by the way in which a gifted orator could sway the minds of men. The impression was perhaps all the greater because, by nature and by inclination his own mode of persuasion was of an altogether different character. As student, as lawyer, and as legislator Jefferson sought to influence men by appeals to facts, not to prejudices—to reason, not to emotion. His form of eloquence, as exemplified in the Declaration of Independence and the First Inaugural, was of the highest order, being timeless in its expression of enduring hopes and aspirations. But he could not mesmerize an audience or play upon its passions with the kind of oratory of which Henry was such a master.

Thus, through extraordinarily disciplined preparation and because of the fortuitous circumstance of time and place, Jefferson by 1774 was fully prepared to give the American answer to Lord North’s rhetorical question about the location of authority in the imperial constitution. Within a week of arrival of news of the Boston Port Act, he, Patrick Henry, and other members of the House of Burgesses drafted and procured the adoption of a resolution calling for a day of fasting and prayer to seek divine interposition against the evils of civil war and to be given “one Heart and one Mind firmly to oppose… every injury to American Rights.” Then came Dunmore’s dissolution of the burgesses and the call for a convention to meet in Williamsburg at the beginning of August. Jefferson prepared himself for this critical meeting by drafting resolutions which were adopted by the freeholders of Albemarle late in July. At the same time, in almost identical language, he prepared “A Declaration of rights and League for their support by the inhabitants of Virginia.” This affirmation of natural and constitutional rights obviously was intended for adoption by the Williamsburg convention as a formal protest against invasions of those rights by Parliament and as a call for united action by the colonies in applying economic sanctions in defense of the common cause. The Declaration of Rights was a thoroughly characteristic Jeffersonian document—bold, succinct, and cogent, stating the case with a finality that seemed intentionally to exclude all justificative arguments. Its boldly stated theory of empire was as explicit in its definition of authority as the Declaratory Act of Parliament had been in 1766. Here, in its opening paragraph, was Jefferson’s answer to Lord North and to those in America like John Dickinson, who had only given the equivocal response that the colonies were “as much dependent on Great Britain as one free people could be on another”:

We… do declare that the several states of British America are subject to the laws which they adopted at their first settlement and to such others as have been since made by their respective Legislatures duly constituted and appointed with their own consent. That no other Legislature whatever may rightfully exercise authority over them, and that these privileges they hold as the common rights of mankind, confirmed by the political constitutions they have respectively assumed, and also by several charters of compact from the crown.

The idea that the colonies were indeed autonomous states, bound by compact with the crown and having no other constitutional connection with the empire, could not have been asserted more blandly than in Jefferson’s assurance that Americans would be ready to grant privileges in commerce to their brethren of Great Britain, reserving always the right to withdraw such as might be disapproved by any general congress of deputies from the several states and to adopt any others which the congress might think “more expedient for the American good.”

Jefferson was in the forefront but not alone in advancing such a constitutional theory. By 1770 Benjamin Franklin thought it should be taken for granted and no longer argued that the colonies were originally constituted as distinct states and were intended to continue as such, “having equal rights and liberties, and being only connected, as England and Scotland were before the union, by having one common Sovereign, the King.” Yet in 1774 John Adams in Massachusetts and James Wilson in Pennsylvania, among others, were still defending the proposition with closely reasoned arguments. Jefferson’s Declaration of Rights took Franklin’s ground, almost as if this view of the nature of the imperial connection were a self-evident proposition. But this compromise solution to the central and most enduring of all political questions—that of balancing the rightful claims of the part against those of the whole—was impossible for the government of George the Third and the British public to accept, insisting as virtually all did on the absolute supremacy of Parliament. It was indeed so far beyond the realm of the possible that not until the twentieth century, with the adoption of the Statute of Westminster of 1931, could the idea of a commonwealth of· free states linked by common allegiance to the crown become a reality.

Even in America and certainly in Virginia the position assumed by Jefferson in the Declaration of Rights was thought by many to be too radical. Events were fast hastening to a climax, but in the critical year 1774 many still held back, reluctant to challenge a supreme authority that for so long had been tacitly acknowledged. No one knows for certain what use Jefferson made of his Declaration of Rights, though it is a fair assumption that he seriously doubted whether Virginians who had been so divided over such a relatively innocent resolution as that calling for prayer and fasting—itself designed to arouse them to action—were then prepared to accept a doctrine which only a few of the more perceptive writers on politics had advanced. If he had such doubts, then it is plausible to assume that he put aside this bold affirmation of rights as having no chance of being adopted. In mid-summer of 1774 such a conclusion, as events proved, was both sound and politically prudent.

This plausible inference is supported by the fact that Jefferson then sat down and drew up a series of resolutions also intended for adoption by the Williamsburg convention. These resolutions, which ultimately came to be published both in America and in England as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” and which immediately placed its author in the vanguard of revolutionary writers, were ostensibly drafted as instructions for the guidance of Virginia’s delegates to the forthcoming Continental Congress. But in form, in substance, and in purpose this famous document stands in marked contrast to the less well known yet no less important Declaration of Rights. To be sure, Jefferson’s “Summary View” restated without a single modification his advanced concept of the imperial relationship as set forth in the Declaration. The recent acts of Parliament were declared to be null and void not because they were unjust, tyrannical, or oppressive but simply because they were ultravires.“The true ground on which we declare these acts void,” Jefferson wrote in “Summary View,” “is that the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.” Drawing upon Richard Bland’s “Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies,” published eight years earlier, Jefferson argued that the colonies had never been included within the realm and thus could not rightfully be subject to the laws of Parliament, being dominions of the King and owing him the same allegiance as subjects in England and Scotland before the union. Thus the crown alone provided the balance in “a great, if well poised empire.” Indeed, in addition to the propositions advanced with such clarity in the Declaration of Rights, Jefferson made specific the claim implied in that document, asserting that the colonists could “exercise… a free trade with all parts of the world… as of natural right.” Another advance made in the “Summary View” concerned the enduring question of the right of expatriation, a concept long entertained by classical writers on government but repudiated in practice by most governments of that day and by many since—and indeed one that was rejected even by American jurists until well into the nineteenth century. In the “Summary View” Jefferson declared that Americans “possessed a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.” Thus far, on these fundamental propositions derived from the natural rights philosophy, Jefferson’s Declaration of Rights and his “Summary View” were in complete accord.

But in the latter the essential elements of his theory of empire were imbedded in a matrix of law, history, and rational discussion of the merits of the case. Where the Declaration of Rights had baldly asserted the American position, the “Summary View” argued the case in a purported appeal to the King. Indeed, the resolutions would have instructed the Virginia delegates to call for “an humble and dutiful address… to his majesty begging leave to lay before him as chief magistrate of the British empire the united complaints of his… subjects in America… excited by many unwarrantable incroachments and usurpations, attempted to be made by the legislature of one part of the empire, upon those rights which god and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” Of course, as Jefferson knew and as the resolutions declared, the several colonies had already made numerous petitions to “the imperial throne, to obtain thro’ it’s intervention some redress of their injured rights; to none of which was ever even an answer condescended.” Why then another petition? The ostensible reason was that a joint address, “penned in the language of truth, and divested of those expressions of servility” which could delude the King into thinking they were asking favors and not rights, might be given a more respectful reception.

Divested of expressions of servility the resolutions most assuredly were. They reminded the King that, following the example of their Saxon ancestors, Americans had conquered the land and established their autonomous states:

For themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have a right to hold…. [T]hese states never supposed that!, by calling [upon Great Britain for aid against the common enemy], they thereby submitted themselves to her sovereignty. Had such terms been proposed, they would have rejected them with disdain, and trusted for better to the moderation of their enemies, or to a vigorous exertion of their own force.

But there had followed a long chain of parliamentary usurpations extending back to the first half of the seventeenth century, restricting trade, intermeddling with internal affairs, and bringing, during the rule of George the Third, such a succession of injuries as to distinguish his reign from all that had preceded. As Jefferson put it in words that would be echoed in the more famous passage in the Declaration of Independence:

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of the day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably thro’ every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.

Jefferson then recited the catalogue of oppressive measures enacted under George the Third—”acts of power assumed by a body of men foreign to our constitutions, and unacknowledged by our laws.”

This recital, beginning with the identification of the colonists’ situation with that of their Saxon ancestors and ending with Lord North’s Coercive Acts, left much to be desired as a sober recital of history, as Dumas Malone and others have pointed out. But as an utterance of sentiments Americans increasingly wished to hear expressed, this was powerful advocacy. It was also only the beginning, for Jefferson then turned upon the King himself in what was less a humble and dutiful address than a defiant warning, being as completely devoid of those expressions of servility as were the strictures against the usurpations of Parliament. The conduct of the King, as holding the executive powers of these American states, had been no less marked by deviations from the line of duty. He had refused assent to laws for trifling reasons or for no reason at all. He had allowed laws enacted by the colonies to lie neglected for years, neither confirming nor annulling them. He had made this still more oppressive by the suspending clause which kept any legislation, however immediately needed, from being carried into effect until it had twice crossed the Atlantic—an act which, as Bernhard Knollenberg has said, “struck at the very root of self-government in Virginia,” being soon applied to Massachusetts and South Carolina as well. “But in what terms reconcileable to majesty and at the same time to truth,” Jefferson asked, could one speak of the late instruction to the governor of Virginia which had the effect of forcing westerners to travel in some cases hundreds of miles to obtain justice at their county courts? Or, Jefferson asked indignantly and rhetorically:

… does his majesty seriously wish, and publish it to the world, that his subjects should give up the glorious right of representation… and submit themselves the absolute slaves of his sovereign will1 Or is it rather meant to confine the legislative body to their present numbers, that they may be the cheaper bargain whenever they shall become worth a purchase?

This was extraordinarily blunt language, calculated to reverberate with powerful effect among the piedmont hills and in the Great Valley where yeomen farmers knew what realities lay behind the rhetoric. But there was much more. The King had permitted the dissolution of representative bodies for doing their duty. He had continued the fiction that lands belonged originally to the King, thus violating the nature and purpose of civil institutions under which the people or their delegates had sole authority to make grants, failing which each individual was free to appropriate vacant lands and gain title by occupancy. He had sent large bodies of soldiers into the colonies, though he had no right to land a single troop on these shores. In these and other ways he had expressly made the civil authority subordinate to military power. The multiplied indictment, like that in the Declaration of Independence, did some violence to the facts, but historical accuracy was not Jefferson’s aim.

Then came the admonitory peroration, expressed like the preceding catalogue of grievances “with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people, claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate”:

Let those flatter, who fear: it is not an American art…. They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people. Open your breast Sire, to liberal and expanded thought. Let not the name of George the Third be a blot in the page of history…. The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader: to pursue them requires not the aid of many counsellors. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail. No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another: but deal out to all equal and impartial right. Let no act be passed by any one legislature which may infringe on the rights and liberties of another.

It was neither the wish nor the interest of America to separate from Great Britain, Jefferson concluded, but the terms of accommodation would have to be just and the union established on a generous plan. And let not Parliament suppose that Americans could be excluded from going to other markets to dispose of commodities Britons could not use—tobacco did not need to be mentioned. Still less could it be supposed that colonists could be taxed or have their property regulated by any power on earth save their own—and here western lands did not need to be specified:

The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. This, Sire, is our last, our determined resolution: and that you will be pleased… to procure redress of these our great grievances, to quiet the minds of your subjects in British America against any apprehensions of future to establish fraternal love and harmony thro’ the whole empire, and that that may continue to the latest ages of time, is the fervent prayer of all British America.

The first observation to be made about this famous summation of American grievances is that if it had actually been the fervent wish of all British America, so impassioned a plea would not have been necessary. A year later Jefferson could say privately that it was will alone that was wanting to produce an assertion of independence—a will that in 1775 was “growing apace under the fostering hand of our King.” The will was even less evident in 1774 when these resolutions advanced a theory of empire far too bold for most Americans, however responsive a chord they may have struck in the recital of the long list of grievances. They constituted an argument of the case, not an echo of public opinion, being intent upon “advancing the cause to the next stage,” as Merrill Peterson has observed.

Nor can we accept Jefferson’s opening assertion that this notable document was intended as a set of instructions to the Virginia delegates. Eighteenth-century resolutions adopted for the guidance of elected representatives did not require and perhaps nowhere else ever embodied so elaborate and eloquent a justification of decisions already made. The momentous instructions of the Virginia convention of 1776 directing the delegates in Congress “to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain,”—surely the most fateful resolutions of modem times—had only a preamble of about three hundred words, not in argument but in affirmation. In fact, the instructions as finally adopted by the Virginia convention of 1774 were not much longer and, not surprisingly, reflected the hesitant American consensus about grievances and modes of redress. Jefferson’s resolutions eloquently plead the case for his advanced theory of empire in more than six thousand impassioned words.

Was this document, then, really intended as the basis of a petition to the King which its opening statement professed? Not by any stretch of the imagination could Jefferson’s description of such an appeal as “humble and dutiful” be applied to what followed. Despite the briefly—almost casually—expressed desire for love and harmony in a great if well poised empire, the tone throughout was defiant, not conciliatory. This was the almost contumacious language of a spokesman for free men addressing a servant of the people, calling him to account not only for acquiescence in parliamentary invasions of American rights but for his own misconduct as chief magistrate. Jefferson was far too realistic an observer of men and politics to delude himself into believing that such inflammatory language could possibly sway the King and his ministers to accept a view of the constitution that to them would have been comprehensible only as a rebellious challenge to lawful authority. He must have known that the effect upon the British government would have been exactly the opposite of what the resolutions professed to seek. We are forced to conclude therefore, that the audience Jefferson had in mind was in fact made up of his fellow Virginians who were about to meet in convention to determine the next step. He must also have known what is so obvious to us—that that body would be reluctant to accept his answer to Lord North with its emphatic denial of the supreme, irresistible, and absolute authority of Parliament. If so, the event would prove how correct was his appraisal of the political realities.

Probably most if not all students of Jefferson would agree in such an analysis of his intent in framing resolutions so strikingly different in tone and substance from his bold, succinct, and coherent Declaration of Rights. But all who have written upon the subject—including especially the editor of “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson”—have over­ looked the most obvious contradiction in these two documents which embraced the same theory of empire. The first of these documents was thoroughly characteristic of Jefferson’s style as lawyer and legislator, the other decidedly not. We can easily imagine Jefferson arising in the Virginia convention to propose the brief, cogent Declaration of Rights, however difficult it might be to conceive of its members adopting the propositions contained therein. And it is not difficult to conjecture what the members—so long used to Jefferson’s factual, closely reasoned pleadings in the courts and speeches in the House of Burgesses—might have thought if he had dared to attempt to voice such impassioned, inflammatory, and eloquently defiant passages as the second of these documents contained. Jefferson knew himself and his presumed auditors well enough to know that such flights of eloquence, however readily he could set them down on paper, were completely foreign to the methods of persuasion he had al­ ways employed with juries and legislative bodies. One can only suppose that his hearers would have thought he had taken leave of his senses, being oblivious to his arguments as they beheld so extraordinary and so uncharacteristic a performance.

Why, then, did Jefferson make the attempt even on paper? We have all taken him at his word in the explanation that he gave for not presenting the resolutions in person:

Being elected one [of the delegates] for my own county I prepared a draught of instructions to be given to the dele­ gates whom we should send to the Congress, and which I meant to propose at our meeting…. I sat out for Wmsbg. some days before that appointed for our meeting, but was taken ill of a dysentery on the road, and unable to proceed. I sent on therefore to Wmsbg. two copies of my draught, the one under cover to Peyton Randolph, who I knew would be in the chair of the convention, the other to Patrick Henry.

This is the account that Jefferson gave in his fragment of autobiography, written in 1821. His other versions all state that he became ill on the road, though in one of them he says that the resolutions were drafted at Monticello, that the two copies were forwarded by express, and that they were “drawn in haste with a number of blanks, with some uncertainties and inaccuracies of historical facts, which I neglected at the moment, knowing they could be readily corrected at the meeting.” The evidence of hasty composition is apparent not merely in the inaccuracies and omissions but also in the general character of the resolutions.

Possibly Jefferson’s illness was genuine, though there is no evidence of this beyond his own assertion and its acceptance by the editors of the “Summary View,” who described it as the work of a delegate “whose personal attendance was prevented by an accidental illness.” Other contemporaries, like all historians, also accepted Jefferson’s explanation of his absence from the convention—an explanation which must have been made in letters, now missing, that accompanied the two copies of the resolutions sent forward by express. But, even if his illness on the road be regarded as an authentic fact, it is still possible that this could have been employed as a convenient excuse rather than as the actual reason for his failure to present the resolutions in person. On this point the chronology of his travels in the summer of 1774 is illuminating.

Fortunately, Jefferson’s whereabouts at any particular time can be determined with some degree of accuracy because of the meticulous memoranda of his expenses that he set down with remarkable regularity from the time he was admitted to the bar in 1767 until a few days before his death in 1826. These memoranda are especially reliable in respect to expenditures on the road, for he noted the costs of ferries, inns, gratuities, and other travel items with particular care. Thus, in the summer of 1774, we know that Jefferson left Williamsburg on June 16, arrived at Tuckahoe on the 19th, and, after a social visit there of perhaps two or three days, reached Monticello on the 24th. There he remained until mid-July, when he undertook a journey that lasted several days. On the 17th he stopped at Payne’s ordinary, a day’s travel to the eastward. The next day he was at Goochland Court House, thirty miles from Richmond. Was this the start of his journey to Williamsburg “some days before” the convention was to meet? This is extremely implausible, for his presence would undoubtedly have been required in his own parish on the 23rd of July, the day set aside at his request for the inhabitants of St. Anne’s to hold a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. He would also have been obliged to be there on the 26th, when the free­holders of Albemarle adopted his resolutions and elected him a deputy to the convention.

After the 26th, so far as the record shows, Jefferson did not depart from Monticello. On the 29th of July he re­ corded the fact that Jupiter, his reliable slave, had been dis­ patched to Williamsburg, ostensibly to acquire paint. But it is plausible to assume that his mission was also—perhaps primarily—to convey the two copies of Jefferson’s hastily drawn resolutions to Peyton Randolph and Patrick Henry. If Jupiter were well-mounted and departed early on Friday the 29th, he could easily have reached Williamsburg in time for the opening of the convention on the following Mon­day. It was also on the 29th that Jefferson, perhaps in salute to the hopes embodied in the fateful documents dispatched by express, noted that “the pipe of wine… bought of Skelton’s estate” the preceding June had been broached. Between his election as a delegate on the 26th and Jupiter’s departure on the 29th, Jefferson would have had ample time to set aside his succinct Declaration of Rights and to substitute for it the hastily drafted and uncharacteristic rhetoric of the resolutions. But such a schedule would have allowed little time for the beginning of his journey or for a debilitating illness. The only alternative explanation for this sequence of events would seem to be that Jefferson’s journey eastward in July was undertaken because he was on the way to the convention. But this, besides being an inherently implausible assumption, would only prove that the illness, if it occurred on the journey to Goochland, still left him with ample time to get to the convention. It follows that some other explanation is required for the abandonment of the Declaration of Rights and the drafting of the very different and declamatory resolutions, two documents having in common only the same theory of empire.

The significant fact is that the second of the two copies of the resolutions was sent to Patrick Henry. Henry would scarcely have possessed the legal and historical learning needed to marshal the arguments that formed the matrix of Jefferson’s answer to Lord North. But no American then alive—certainly not Jefferson—could have matched Henry in raising to sublime eloquence Jefferson’s defiance of Parliament’s authority and challenge to royal misconduct. Jefferson well understood how far a leap into the future he was asking his fellow Virginians to make, one so daring that, as he later recalled, none save Wythe stood with him at that time in denying the supremacy of Parliament. Hence it would not be surprising if, during these critical days in the midsummer of 1774, he had recalled that memorable day in 1765 when Henry had so inflamed the minds of his hearers and when Peyton Randolph had sworn that he would have given a hundred guineas—or was it five hundred ?—for another vote. If so, even without a touch of illness, he must have realized that his Declaration of Rights—which assumed a consensus on his radical propositions and made no attempt to persuade—needed at this fateful juncture all of the impassioned eloquence that a Patrick Henry could provide. It therefore seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jefferson deliberately fashioned the resolutions with the great orator in mind, providing him with the necessary arguments and also with the kind of eloquence Jefferson could express in the most elevated manner on paper but not at all in public debate.

If such was his intent—and lacking any better explanation for the abandonment of the Declaration of Rights and the substitution of the resolutions, one is forced to accept this as being the most plausible inference—the effort failed. In one of his later comments on the fate of his resolutions, Jefferson said that Henry “probably thought [them] too bold as a first measure, as the majority of the members did.” In his autobiography, he made a harsher judgment:

Whether Mr. Henry disapproved the ground taken, or was too lazy to read it (for he was the laziest man in reading I ever knew), I never learned: but he communicated it to nobody.

Henry may have pocketed the resolutions. But after some members of the convention had drafted a title, selected an epigraph from Cicero, and prepared a preface to the resolutions which they caused to be published as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Henry, chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress, carried copies of the pamphlet with him. No doubt other Virginia delegates did the same, with the result that a Philadelphia edition by John Dunlap was announced in the press as early as the 5th of September. Late that month Henry dined with Thomas Wharton and discussed western land speculations in which both men were vitally interested, particularly prospects of the Vandalia Company. It is very likely that at that time Henry presented a copy of the Williamsburg edition of the “Summary View” to his host, who on reading it marked those passages denying the right of the King to make grants of land and asserting the right of communities or individuals on their own initiative to take up vacant lands. In retrospect and in view of all of the attendant circumstances, it is easy to believe that in drafting the resolutions Jefferson stressed this question of local authority over the immense western territories because he knew that this was one subject bound to appeal to the acquisitive inclinations of Patrick Henry.

If, as all of the plausibilities seem to indicate, Jefferson did abandon his Declaration of Rights and shape its central theory of empire in a manner· that he hoped would inflame Henry and cause him to try to Influence the Virginia convention, this would only be the first known example of a deeply-ingrained trait of character so conspicuously manifested in his entire career—that of achieving his object by indirection rather than by confrontation, of utilizing the talents of others when this gave the most promise of achieving the desired goal. Throughout life Jefferson exhibited this trait over and over again, most notably perhaps in the famous affirmation that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living, expressed in what was ostensibly a letter to Madison but was actually a rationale by which moderates in the National Assembly of France could legitimatize their casting off of ancient burdens and oppressions.

This pronounced trait, sensible and realistic as it was for a man habitually disciplined to anticipate the course of events, misled Jefferson’s political opponents—who of course would have found other reasons if this had been lacking—to characterize him as cunning, devious, and even deceitful in his political actions. It has misled historians as well. The famous passage in Henry Adams’ “History of the United States” is known to all: “A few broad strokes of the brush would paint the portraits of all the early Presidents… but Jefferson could only be painted touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.” Adams deliberately chose the image of an artist painting a portrait, the shifting and uncertain shadows being caused not by a failure of light or of the artist’s vision, but by the shifting, unsteady posture of the subject.

Adams’ memorable appraisal has influenced historians and others from that day to this, while the more penetrating estimate of a gentle but tough-minded philosopher has gone almost unnoticed. Jefferson “developed with the experiences enlarged responsibilities gave him,” John Dewey declared many years ago, “but it was uninterruptedly in one direction. Political expedience may have caused him to deviate on special points, but there are few men in public life whose course has been so straight. Natural sympathies, actual experiences, and intellectual principles united in him to pro­duce a character of singular consistency and charm.” The great moral and philosophical propositions set forth in the Declaration of Independence became the controlling influence in his life, steadfastly upheld even in the face of adversity. As for himself, there was no apostasy of principle, no turning away from the experiment that would determine whether man was capable of self-government. But, he asked rhetorically in his “Notes on Virginia,” “is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance?”His answer, like his posture in 1774, was realistic: “the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless.”

This, too, was prophetic. But in these days when the fundamental maxims of a free society are unavoidably being· pondered by the people at large—perhaps never more so since that stirring decade when Jefferson was preparing him­ self for a life of public service—he would no doubt be gratified to know that civil magistrates are again being re­ minded of the sacredness of public trust, again being held accountable for its abuse. He would undoubtedly take comfort, too, in knowing that the foundations he did so much to establish two centuries ago are still solid. His expression of the American mind, prematurely stated in 1774 but given immortal expression by him in 1776, is still valid even for a vastly altered world.


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