On the Fourth of July, I often think of Thomas Jefferson, who is an example of the complexity of human nature if ever there was one. The back and forth interplay of fortune, fate, and character that was the paradox of Jefferson is for me instructive. Particularly in this, my own time, when I am daily reminded that anyone’s freedom rests on precarious human conditions and constantly changing circumstances, when the public is polarized about so many things, when it seems Congress can never agree, when we tire of trying to make things better, there is, I think, much to gain from a brief look at Jefferson and at that “original” Fourth of July.
Jefferson, for all of his life, entertained passionately held ideals concerning human rights and liberty. But these ideals when set forward received repeated defeats and rejections and modifications, in various congresses and conventions, including his draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson was the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia debating whether to separate the colonies from England. In June of 1776, Jefferson wrote, in two or three days, his draft of the Declaration of Independence, which he submitted first to John Adams and then to Benjamin Franklin and two other committee members, who immediately made a total of forty-seven changes to the draft, modifying it so that would have some hope of passage.
When the amended draft was submitted to Congress on July 1, the vote in Congress found only nine states in favor, while South Carolina and Pennsylvania were opposed, Delaware delegates were divided, and New York was without instructions.
For four days Congress debated the amended draft. During a heated exchange, thirty-nine additional changes were made in Congress.
With the arrival of a Delaware delegate to break the Delaware deadlock, along with the absence of two opposed Pennsylvania delegates, and a change in position by South Carolina, finally on July 4, Congress approved the thirty-nine changes to the already forty-seven times amended Declaration of Independence.
Compromise all around; nobody got exactly what they wanted, including Jefferson. All signers, however, laid their lives on the line, ready to die if captured, as the English would, of course, consider the Declaration of Independence treasonous.
The political climate of the day forestalled adoption of most of Jefferson’s ideals. For example, Jefferson, before he was elected to any office, wrote a draft constitution for the state of Virginia in which his proposed reforms included an independent judiciary, the extension of suffrage, the gradual abolition of slavery, the appropriation of unsettled western land as freeholds to independent farmers, fewer obstacles to the naturalization of immigrants, and the governorship reduced to an administrator serving a one-year term! The draft was rejected.
Jefferson, as governor of Virginia, again asked the state legislature to approve: a statute for religious freedom; a bill for reforming the legal code, especially the application of the death penalty; a bill for the “general diffusion of knowledge” that established a public school system; measures for the expansion of suffrage, and the abolition of feudal land inheritance laws.
Only the last, concerning land inheritance, passed.
A committee of the Virginia legislature even held an investigation after Jefferson’s term ended. It seems that during the war and during his governorship, Jefferson and the Virginia legislators had had to flee the invading British. Some legislators said that Jefferson had not adequately prepared a defense against the British (the British who had overrun the Virginia capital and, while Jefferson escaped, the British occupied his beloved home, Monticello!). Jefferson was eventually acquitted. And, partly due to Jefferson’s persistence, the Virginia House did pass a Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786.
By that time, however, Jefferson was no stranger to irony. For example, his father having died when Jefferson was only fourteen, the young Jefferson was sent to board with a tutor, studying to be a lawyer, but on the very year he passed the bar exam, the courts closed because of the Stamp Act Crisis.
Jefferson was a prolific writer from an early age, but when the family estate burned in 1770, all his papers written up to that time were destroyed.
Jefferson persisted and accomplished much, of course, despite these and other repeated and more serious personal losses. Only two of Jefferson’s and his wife’s six children lived into adulthood. Both Jefferson’s mother and his wife died a few years apart during the very time when Jefferson was called again and again to participate in the Revolution. It was said that Jefferson was inconsolable after his wife died, yet a few months later, the new Congress was asking him to journey to Europe with Franklin and others to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain.
Jefferson was considered by his peers in Virginia to be a radical, out of step with the tangled economic conditions there, this because Jefferson continually wrote drafts of document after document designed to abolish slavery, documents that were as continually rejected. Yet, ironically again, Jefferson himself did not free any of the many slaves he and his wife had inherited, except for his own black children whom he saw educated and freed in his will. (The story of his relationship after his wife’s death with the young black house slave, Sally Hemmings, is well known and well documented.)
So, again, I say, Jefferson’s history, dark and light, is instructive as I think of the precarious dependence of freedom upon the vagaries of human nature with the interplay of circumstances beyond any one human’s control.
So, this Fourth of July, I am grateful for the freedom we have, and I will do all I can to encourage us all to persist in standing up for our values and defending our freedom in this our own day, even if we must, as the country’s founders did, in heated debate, come to compromises and work out over time the means to bring about the freedom and progress hoped for.
Following is a link to a most excellent database containing digitized copies of Jefferson’s papers, with a fine timeline of Jefferson’s life and much else. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjvatm6.html
Happy Fourth of July, 2018