Jefferson was a slave-holder who urged permanent revolution. He doesn’t deserve acclaimby Ferdinand Mount / April 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
There are two stories about how Thomas Jefferson came to write the United States Declaration of Independence. The most famous is Jefferson’s own account: “The committee of five met; no such thing as a sub-committee was proposed, but they unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught.”
The other comes from John Adams, Jefferson’s grumpy, brilliant predecessor both as vice-president and as president of the US. Both men were writing nearly 50 years after the event, but I prefer Adams’s version, which brings back the anxious, chaotic days of July 1776. “We were all in haste, Congress was impatient,” Adams recalled, “and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson’s handwriting as he first drew it”—no time for a fair copy.
Adams thought the Declaration, for all its subsequent fame, “contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments hacknied in Congress for two years before.” Jefferson retorted that “I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether.” In fact, several weeks earlier, while Jefferson was away in Philadelphia, George Mason had composed Virginia’s own Declaration of Rights in very similar language, down to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It has been a struggle to fit Jefferson into the national pantheon and keep him there”
When the Second Continental Congress went through Jefferson’s draft, they struck out quite a bit of the…