Writing the Declaration of Independence (A Vintage Short)
Joseph J. Ellis
A colorful, enlightening account of how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the road to July 4: a selection from Joseph J. Ellis’s American Sphinx, winner of the National Book Award.
How did the newest and youngest member of Virginia’s delegation to the Constitutional Congress come to write the founding document of the American project? In “Writing the Declaration of Independence,” Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Joseph J. Ellis outlines the life of the document and the road to its adoption on July 4. From Jefferson’s arrival in Philadelphia in 1775 in an ornate carriage along with four horses and three slaves, to a fascinating guided tour of the drafts and discussions (including the importance of a good speaking voice, the theatricality of Patrick Henry, and Jefferson’s tortured, ultimately discarded section blaming the king for American slavery), this is the true history of Independence Day.
firestorm, destroying any final vestige of loyalty to the British crown. In May the Congress had charged each colony to draft new state constitutions, an explicit act of political independence that Adams always regarded as the decisive move. Most important, the war itself had been raging for more than a year. The bulk of the Congress’s time in fact was occupied with wartime planning and military decisions, as the British fleet was sighted off the coasts of New York and South Carolina and an
writings, but they had been so thoroughly digested that their themes and categories blended imperceptibly into Jefferson’s cast of mind.) His several arguments for American independence all were shaped around a central motif, in which the imperfect and inadequate present was contrasted with a perfect and pure future, achievable once the sources of corruption were eliminated. His mind instinctively created dichotomies and derived its moral energy from juxtaposing the privileged side of any case or
public career. It is an elaborate and largely mythological version of English history. In the midst of his litany against monarchical abuses of power, Jefferson inserted a long paragraph in which he traced the origin of such abuses back to the Norman Conquest. The source of the colonial problem with British authority did not date from the Stamp Act crisis of 1765; the problem really began in 1066, when the Normans defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. This was the origin of what
of the painfully self-conscious teenager (though in fact he was twenty at the time of the Rebecca Burwell fiasco). In another sense, however, they offer glimpses of a very vulnerable young man accustomed to constructing interior worlds of great imaginative appeal that inevitably collided with the more mundane realities. Rather than adjust his expectations in the face of disappointment, he tended to bury them deeper inside himself and regard the disjunction between his ideals and worldly
have come to call the problem of the Shadwell fire, which destroyed most of Jefferson’s personal papers in 1770, making the recovery of his formative years an exercise in inspired guesswork. Given the paucity of early evidence and the veritable flood of material that begins to flow after 1776, the temptation to read the young revolutionary through the elder statesman is nearly irresistible and, in some ways, unavoidable. Take, for example, the matter of young Jefferson’s physical appearance.