Jefferson’s Declarations of Independence

July 3, 2015

To understand Jefferson’s frame of mind when he sat down to write the Declaration, it is helpful to briefly back up to the moment after the Second Continental Congress rejected his draft Declaration of the Causes and adopted Dickinson’s reworked version. After writing this draft, Jefferson remained at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, working on committees until December 1775, when he returned home. He did not arrive back to the Congress until May 14, 1776. In the intervening months, Thomas Paine has published his Common Sense (January 1776), John Adams had published his Thoughts on Government (spring 1776), and several colonies had become ready to declare independence.

We know that in the intervening period since he had left the Continental Congress in December 1775, Jefferson had not yet given up his pet theory about the early settlers’ rights. In the period back at home, he was again trying once more to support his theory that the ancestors were entitled to found new states. In an essay that was never published, entitled Refutation of the Argument that the Colonies Were Established at the Expense of the British Nation, Jefferson this time turns to a detailed historical argument to prove that the colony of Virginia had no obligation to Parliament.1 He surveys the various charters that the Crown had made with Sir Walter Raleigh and his predecessors, showing how the lands were granted by the Crown to these early settlers…..

With some revisions, Jefferson’s draft of the Virginia Constitution became the basis for the list of charges against King George that appears in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence as well.10 Jefferson took one of his earlier Virginia drafts and made some improvements in style, thus reworking it into one part of the Declaration of Independence. Thus the draft of the Virginia Constitution is an early draft of one part of the Declaration of Independence. But it is more than just that. It arguably actually is Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence. By this I mean that this document, standing on its own, represents Jefferson’s first and original Declaration of Independence. For Jefferson understood the Virginia draft Constitution as a document declaring independence for the state of Virginia.11 He was writing this document, moreover, as an individual and not part of a committee, as he would when drafting the Declaration of Independence for Congress.

Jefferson’s first draft of the Virginia Constitution thus provides a window into Jefferson’s own political philosophy and conception of independence on the eve of writing the Declaration of Independence. It is illuminating to see which assumptions from the Virginia Declaration made it into the Declaration of Independence and which assumptions did not.

While the Virginia Declaration is consistent with Jefferson’s own theory of rights, this is not the case with the Declaration of Independence, at least after the revisions by the Committee of Five and Congress as whole. Understanding that Jefferson had to promote a position on rights that he did not fully approve provides a new context by which to understand some of the wording he chose and some of the interesting changes he arguably made to the classic formulation of natural rights language.12

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