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Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why colonial attitudes about government and the individual changed in the years leading up to the American Revolution

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Signing the Declaration of Independence Decision Point to give students a full picture of the declaration.

In early 1776, war raged across the colonies. The siege of Boston had been lifted, but a larger British invasion force was preparing to attack New York. The colonies were drawing up their own constitutions and declaring their rights. It was time for the Continental Congress to confront the pressing question of independence.

In mid-January, pamphleteer Thomas Paine published Common Sense, which attacked King George III as a “royal brute” and undermined the idea of hereditary monarchy. Paine argued for independence and liberty. He proclaimed that “in free countries the law ought to be king.” The forty-six-page pamphlet is reputed to have sold an incredible 150,000 copies (to a population of not quite three million), giving it an even wider audience, because people passed it around or publicly read it aloud. Common Sense excited a colonial thirst for independence.

On May 15, Congress passed a resolution calling on assemblies and conventions to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.” Massachusetts delegate John Adams thought drawing up republican-written constitutions was an act of “independence itself.” He added a preamble that forcefully asserted:

It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.

The same day, the Virginia Convention directed its delegates in Philadelphia to “propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain.” As fighting raged between colonists and redcoats, momentum for independence continued to build.

On June 7, Virginian Richard Henry Lee rose on the floor of Congress and proposed that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” The controversial resolution sparked a contentious debate. Delegate John Dickinson, who in his essay Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania had protested British actions in the colonies, argued against the call for independence, believing the time was not yet right for separation and that violence should not be used to resolve the conflict. Other delegates, like Edward Rutledge from South Carolina and James Wilson of Pennsylvania, opposed Lee’s resolution on principle, because they had not been authorized to support it by their constituents.

Congress appointed a committee of five – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson – to draft a Declaration of Independence. The committee, in turn, assigned the task of writing the document to thirty-three-year-old Jefferson. The reason, John Adams later reflected, was “the elegance of his pen.” Jefferson was the author of several important works on natural rights and republican government, including the 1774 pamphlet, Summary View of the Rights of British North America, in which he wrote that the rights of the people were “derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” In July 1775, Jefferson had also written the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.”

Jefferson had with him a copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12. That influential document asserted the rights of nature and maintained that the purpose of government was to ensure:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

On the evenings of June 12 and 13, Jefferson sat in his boardinghouse and composed a draft of the Declaration of Independence. He submitted it to Adams and the committee, which made several edits, and the document was sent to Congress.

A painting shows members of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Continental Congress. Five men, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, stand in front of a table at which other men are seated or standing. Jefferson is placing papers on the table. The room is filled with seated men, apparently the rest of the Continental Congress. British flags are mounted on the wall behind them.

This famous 1819 painting by John Trumbull shows members of the committee entrusted with drafting the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Continental Congress in 1776. Note the British flags on the wall. From the British perspective, each man who signed this document was committing treason.

On July 1, while a thunderstorm raged outside, Congress held an epic debate between John Dickinson and John Adams. Dickinson opposed a hasty separation with Britain and argued for reconciliation. He warned his fellow delegates that they were about to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” Adams passionately advocated for declaring independence. After nine hours of speeches that ran into the evening, four colonies still voted against Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence.

With the other two members of Delaware’s delegation in disagreement, Caesar Rodney mounted a horse and rode seventy miles through the rain to break the tie, arriving the next morning to ensure the colony’s vote in favor of independence. Dickinson and Robert Morris abstained and allowed the Pennsylvania delegation’s vote for independence, despite their personal opposition. South Carolina held out until Rutledge, recognizing the importance of a unanimous declaration by the entire Congress, decided to change his vote in favor of the resolution. New York’s delegates, awaiting instructions from their legislature, abstained for several days. Nonetheless, on July 2, Congress voted to approve Lee’s resolution. John Adams exulted to his wife Abigail that Americans would celebrate the day forever as their day of independence.

Congress revised the Declaration of Independence the following day and altered approximately a quarter of the text, making the final product an expression of the entire Congress. Heavily influenced by John Locke’s social contract idea in his Second Treatise of Government, the document called for a government created by the consent of the people, recognizing that rights came not from government but from “nature and nature’s God.” It proclaimed that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration argued that republican government was based on a social compact in which the sovereign people voluntarily consented to govern themselves through representatives entrusted with protecting their inalienable rights. The people had the right to overthrow a government that violated their natural rights:

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

A list of grievances indicted the king for “repeated injuries and usurpations” of the colonists’ rights. Taken together, these offenses proved a “design to reduce them under absolute despotism.” This attempt to impose “an absolute tyranny” justified severing their connection with the British Crown and declaring independence. With a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” the delegates pledged to each other “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Adopted on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read to enthusiastic crowds and members of the army. No longer colonists, Americans had laid the foundation for their republic in the universal principles of natural rights and consensual self-government.

Review Questions

1. Which of the following documents did the most to shift public opinion toward independence in early 1776?

  1. The Declaration of Independence
  2. Common Sense
  3. The May 15 Resolution
  4. John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government

2. Which of the following is the most accurate description of the process of declaring independence?

  1. The notion of natural rights of life, liberty, and property was a radical, and uniquely American, ideal.
  2. The Declaration of Independence was written solely by Thomas Jefferson and passed without revision by Congress.
  3. The Declaration of Independence was unanimously supported by the Continental Congress, which reflected the unanimity of popular opinion on the issue.
  4. The writing of an official declaration was precipitated by increased British aggression, and full-scale war was imminent, which was a tipping point for Congress.

3. Which document was a national bestseller that argued for American independence and convinced many colonists to become Patriots?

  1. Common Sense
  2. Declaration of Independence
  3. Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom
  4. Olive Branch Petition

4. Which of the following best explains the process of writing the Declaration of Independence?

  1. Thomas Jefferson took it upon himself to write the document without guidance from the Continental Congress.
  2. After multiple calls for independence, a committee was created to collaborate on a document that would go through revisions and debate.
  3. A small radical faction within the Continental Congress met without permission to write a document that would galvanize the independence movement.
  4. By May 1776, each colony was convinced of the need for independence, and all worked together to create a document that represented their views.

5. Which colony was the first to call for “free and independent states?”

  1. Massachusetts
  2. New York
  3. Virginia
  4. South Carolina

6. Which of the following documents did not influence Thomas Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration?

  1. John Locke’s Treatise on Government
  2. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
  3. George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights
  4. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

7. When the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, it

  1. was the culmination of thorough debate and extensive negotiation necessary to achieve a unanimous decision
  2. was then published for colonists who were to vote on whether they supported it
  3. was positively received by the Loyalists who wanted colonists to form their own country and leave Great Britain
  4. immediately created a new country that was recognized by other powers like France

8. The Declaration of Independence did not include

  1. a list of grievances against the king
  2. a statement of political theory articulating that the government was responsible to the people
  3. a list of signatures that made the signers vulnerable to prosecution for treason if they lost the war or were captured
  4. an Olive Branch Petition listing conditions that, if met by the British, would result in the colonists’ withdrawing the Declaration

Free Response Questions

  1. Identify and explain two different ideological origins that shaped colonial thinking about independence and republican self-government.
  2. How was the adoption of independence part of a moment of great deliberation and compromise for the colonies?

AP Practice Questions

“Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcileable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies; therefore, resolved, &c.”

John Adams, Preamble, May 15, 1776

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Why did John Adams tell Abigail Adams that the preamble to the May 15 Resolution was “a compleat Seperation” and “a total absolute Independence, not only of her Parliament but of her Crown”?

  1. The preamble sought to reconcile with Great Britain through additional petitions.
  2. Reason and conscience dictated that colonists could no longer proclaim allegiance to Britain.
  3. Regardless of the powers exerted, it was not possible for the colonies to preserve internal peace, virtue, and good order on their own.
  4. The colonies were still loyal to the king even if Parliament passed repressive measures.

“A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free Convention, which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government.

1. THAT all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.”

Refer to the excerpt provided.

2. Why did John Adams tell Abigail Adams that the preamble to the May 15 Resolution was “a compleat Seperation” and “a total absolute Independence, not only of her Parliament but of her Crown”?

  1. The Declaration of Independence partially echoed the Virginia Declaration of Rights, featuring similar language and ideals.
  2. The Declaration of Independence built on the assertions of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and officially created a national government.
  3. The Declaration of Independence responded to the Virginia Declaration of Rights by offering an opposing view on natural rights and independence.
  4. The Declaration of Independence led to the creation of Virginia Declaration of Rights and other state declarations that were aligned with its vision.

“With respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced therefore to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; [. . .] terms so plain and firm, as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we [. . .] compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the american mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All it’s authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed, in conversns in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc.”

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825

Refer to the excerpt provided.

3. According to Thomas Jefferson, what was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence at the moment of its drafting?

  1. To counter the arguments of the Tories against independence
  2. To express common political principles and their basis in natural rights
  3. To set a plan for a new system and organization of government, namely one that was based in republican ideals
  4. To compromise between two factions of Congress and lay out their common agreements about the present state of the colonies

“They begin, my Lord, with a false hypothesis, That the Colonies are one distinct people and the kingdom another, connected by political bands. The Colonies, politically considered, never were a distinct people from the kingdom. There never has been but one political band, and that was just the same before the first Colonists emigrated as it has been ever since. . . . I should therefore be impertinent if I attempted to show in what case a whole people may be justified in rising up in oppugnation [opposition] to the powers of government, altering or abolishing them and substituting, in whole or in part, new powers in their stead; or in what sense all men are created equal, or how far life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may be said to be unalienable. Only I could wish to ask the Delegates of Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas how their Constituents justify the depriving more than an hundred thousand Africans of their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and in some degree to their lives, if these rights are so absolutely unalienable; nor shall I attempt to confute the absurd notions of government or to expose the equivocal or inconclusive expressions contained in this Declaration; but rather to show the false representation made of the facts which are alleged to be the evidence of injuries and usurpations, and the special motives to Rebellion. There are many of them, with designs, left obscure; for as soon as they are developed, instead of justifying, they rather aggravate the criminality of this Revolt.”

Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Strictures Upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia, London, 1776

Refer to the excerpt provided.

4. Which of the following is not a main assertion of Governor Hutchinson when discussing the Declaration of Independence?

  1. He refutes the idea that the colonists are a distinct body separate from England.
  2. He argues that colonists don’t treat all men equally, specifically citing slaves in the south.
  3. He feels the information has been manipulated and is not an accurate representation of the situation in the colonies.
  4. He understands the complaints of the colonists and empathizes with them but argues that with some concessions, they can be folded back into the Empire.

5. The excerpt provided could be used by historians to support which of the following arguments?

  1. Support for the revolution against Great Britain was unanimous in the colonies.
  2. Delegates from southern colonies would find it difficult to explain how rights of enslaved people are unalienable.
  3. Patriots ridiculed the principle that political bands ever connected them with Britain.
  4. The Declaration of Independence included diverse opinions.

Primary Sources

Adams, John. V. Preamble to Resolution on Independent Governments, 15 May 1776. Founders Online, National Archives.

Declaration of Independence. July 4, 1776. Independence Hall Association.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Document: Letter to Henry Lee. May 8, 1825.”

Virginia Declaration of Rights. June 12, 1776. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Suggested Resources

Allen, Danielle. Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Favor of Equality. New York: Liveright, 2014.

Arnn, Larry P. The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Becker, Carl. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Vintage, 1922.

Beeman, Richard. Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776. New York: Basic, 2013.

Ellis, Joseph J. Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 2013.

Hogeland, William. Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage, 1997.

Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Garden City: Doubleday, 1978.

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