Designing the Declaration

In June 1776, before the debate had been concluded over whether to even assert independence, the Continental Congress decided to have a formal declaration prepared, just in case. A committee of five was appointed to draft it, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The strong consensus was for Adams to be the actual drafter, but he just as insistently argued that Jefferson do it. On Adams’s promise to supervise and consult closely with Jefferson, this was agreed. The committee established the general content and form of the document, and Jefferson began the historic task.

Jefferson was highly regarded not just as a wordsmith, but as a hard worker, and he had much of that to do for other committees. But he also was widely read in the political classics, and had more recent American sources to hand, as well. Key examples of these are widely considered to include:

  • The Preamble of the Constitution of Virginia (Jefferson)
  • The Virginia Declaration of Rights (George Mason)
  • The English Declaration of Rights (1689)
    There were others, but these provided the key aids to drafting, enabling Jefferson to complete the project despite the time pressure that he faced.

Both inspiration and sometimes especially felicitous phrases were borrowed from these sources. But their weaving by Jefferson into the argument for and the assertion of independence in the Declaration transformed them into inextricably elegant parts of a magnificent whole. His was perhaps the accidental, but surely the perfect pen to render this portrait for the world of American aspirations and ideals.

The draft was submitted to Congress on 28 June 1776, and was tabled until after the formal decision to declare independence was determined. As we have seen, that occurred on 02 July.

And so on the 3rd of July there followed heated debate over the draft text of the Declaration, a highly delicate process carefully and assiduously managed by Adams. Jefferson spoke not a word in defense of his work as fully a quarter of it was removed and some other parts of it were reworded. Adams finally produced its approval and signing by the Continental Congress on the 4th of July, 1776. The decision for independence had been made two days earlier, and had now been formally declared – in sublime, soul-stirring, and world-changing voice.

Preparing to declare

In early 1776, the American colonies had been at war with Great Britain for a year, and yet most still hoped for reconciliation with the King. It was the publication of Thomas Paine’s ”Common Sense” that January that provoked a turn of the tide toward independence. Popular opinion began to shift strongly in that direction, but a problem was that the Continental Congress lacked the authority to declare independence; in fact, many delegates were specifically instructed to reject such a proposal.

Consequently, a campaign was begun to convince the populations of the colonies and their governments of the need. And indeed, many of them responded by declaring independence themselves throughout the late Spring and early Summer.

Some colonial governments, though, resisted – the most important of them being Pennsylvania. Advocates believed that if that colony could be won over, the other skeptics would fall in line. The most effective and creative organizer of these efforts was John Adams, who, after Pennsylvania elected an anti-independence government on May 1st, arranged for Congress to pass a resolution calling on colonies whose governments were out of step with the demands of the time to simply elect new ones. Over the next month, many colonial governments revised their instructions to their delegations to support independence, and in mid-June the Pennsylvania government as a whole did actually change to one that was supportive of independence as well.

On July 1st, a reconstructed but still not fully committed Congress took up the debate again, through a long day of argument and political maneuvering. At the end of the day, Congress, acting as a “Committee of the Whole,” voted in favor of declaring independence with 9 aye votes. The vote needed to be retaken by the Congress acting in its full authority, and this was scheduled for the next day.

On July 2nd, with the fortuitous arrival of pro-declaration delegates previously unavailable, and the altruistically tactical absence of some anti-declaration delegates (allowing those remaining to constitute a majority vote for their colony for independence), Congress voted 12-0 in favor, with New York abstaining only for a technical reason, which was resolved and converted to the 13th “for” vote a week later.

Thus the actual formal declaration of independence occurred on July 2nd, 1776. John Adams, who had been singularly responsible for the result, initially thought that it was that date that would be commemorated by the new nation. But the fruits of his next and related effort, as we will see, would cause that event to be celebrated on the 4th of July.

Builder of America

John Adams gets little credit among the Founding Fathers. He was faulted then and now for his harsh criticism of others, and for his one-term presidency sorely marred by his use of the Sedition Act (he signed but neither liked nor used the Alien Act).

Remorselessly self-critical, he was acutely aware of his volatile temper. He fought hard to bring it under control, fearing that it otherwise rendered him, in his own words, “unsuitable to manly pursuits.” But he was also highly disciplined, probably the most thoroughly educated, and surely the intellectual equal, of any of the Founding Fathers. He combined an uncompromising patriotism with a stupendous work ethic, with the result that few could measure up to his standards, nor could he long contain his disapproval of those who fell short in the face of the momentous stakes at risk in the revolutionary effort.

It was his exceptional work in the Continental Congress, though, that laid the very foundation of the entire undertaking of the separation from Great Britain. A brilliant extemporaneous debater, as well as a far-sighted planner and legislative tactician, he brought his countrymen around to supporting everything from appointment of George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army to the very decision for independence – followed by the historic adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the principal author, but he said not a word in its defense during the difficult debate over its adoption – we have John Adams to thank for that, and for the profound legacy it gifted our nation and the world.

The story of John Adams is of a surpassing intellect, an engaging personality, and a dedicated patriot who worked tirelessly and relentlessly to create this new nation. It is a story superbly told in David McCullough’s “John Adams,” and one that touches meaningfully on the characters and insightfully on the contributions of all the other Founding Fathers. This is a must read for anyone drawn to the story not only of John Adams, but to that of the dawn of our political history as well.

Author of America

In my youth, Thomas Jefferson was depicted as the elevated philosopher-statesman who crafted the truly magnificent Declaration of Independence, clearly placing him high in the pantheon of our Founding Fathers as the great visionary of the people’s republic. This role was often attributed to him in specific and pointed contrast to the putatively less lofty instincts of Hamilton – and even Washington – who supported what was described as undemocratically centralized power.

But that legacy has been the subject of rather heated – and healthy – criticism in more recent decades.

Jefferson’s greatness, though, is surely monumental, and deservedly recognized as such, for at least two accomplishments: of course, the Declaration of Independence takes pride of place here, but close behind, and of equally enduring and profound importance, comes the Louisiana Purchase.

The writing of the Declaration of Independence was not assigned to him because he was universally deferred to as a great political genius, but for two more prosaic reasons. First, he was a Virginian. Virginia was the most populous and important colony, and having a Virginian so prominently involved in this document was seen as important to its acceptance. Second, he quite simply had a reputation as an artful wordsmith. It was these two factors that served to outweigh his relative youth and inexperience, and land him the role of principal author.

Still, what he accomplished revealed at least an innate Socratic genius in him – the Declaration lit the way for Americans across the generations, binding them together in a shared nation as well as inspiring and proffering hope to peoples around the world. It shaped then, and has since, our understanding and our debate about that – of what our country means. Lincoln himself once famously noted that he never had a political instinct that didn’t derive from the principles of the Declaration. From the Civil War of his time to the social uncertainties of our own, the meaning of the Declaration drives our debate, works to inspire us to continue striving to practically achieve in our society the ideals there outlined that we all acknowledge as ours.

The Louisiana Purchase was the consequence of a wide range of wonderfully converging coincidences that culminated in a final, stunning bit of good luck. Jefferson was initially (and properly) only concerned to secure the port of New Orleans for American commerce, but wound up essentially being handed the entire Louisiana territory, more than doubling U.S land area, as well as obtaining dominating control of the Mississippi River – a geopolitical masterstroke. Yet none of this could have happened without Jefferson’s prescient impulse to look to westward expansion as key to the country’s future, and to his being alert for opportunities to facilitate that. He further cemented the grandeur of this accomplishment – and of this abiding drive westward of the American nation – with the commissioning of the spectacular Lewis and Clark expedition.

On the other hand, unlike the mythical Jefferson I learned about in school, the real Jefferson had some genuine shortcomings, many of which speak decidedly ill both of him and of the young nation, as well as some grievous failures, many of which cast long, dangerous shadows over that nation’s very prospects.

We’ll address some of these more broadly in coming weeks. Here, I just want to identify one that always struck me as odd about some of the Jeffersonian quotes selected, in my school days, to represent his greatness. There always seemed to be an astonishing conflict between his characterization as a steadfast, uncompromising advocate and defender of individual liberty and democracy expressed by the people, and his hazily idealistic images of a happy, peaceful country of contented, virtuous farmers blissfully tending their fields under the benignly watchful eyes of elite philosopher-statesman specially trained for their roles at institutions like the university he founded to that specific purpose. Such Jeffersonian fantasies about what he felt to be the true nature of the fundamentally agrarian United States he envisioned, unavoidably call to mind impossibly bucolic and jarringly undemocratic images of a lord in his manor, snugly surrounded with verdant fields worked by happy, care-free peasants. A striking thing about the notion is that this self-deceiving, self-serving instinct to both seduce and subordinate the benighted people is, surely, with us still.

The story of Jefferson gives us much to ponder about who we are, as both a nation and a polity. It’s a dialogue we’ve been having in our politics and culture since, and one we’ll touch on further here, presently.

Who’s to talk?

In the June 4 edition of the Economist, the Lexington columnist indulges in a peculiarly clueless – not to mention pointless – chastisement of Republican voters for selecting Trump as their candidate for the Presidency. Lexington offers a startling argument that the party consists of two broad elements as follows: One is a system of thought about governance that ranges from principled to protectionist, and the other is a collection of nasty propensities ranging from jingoism to racism, the latter typically contained, if uneasily, by the mainstream ascendancy of the former.

Lexington’s contention is that American Republicans, in opting for Trump, have rejected the formal party principles in all their forms – since all elements of them were on offer in the various platforms advanced by other candidates – and have thus unveiled their true affinity for the childish and dangerously irresponsible divisiveness and incivility that only Trump represents. In other words, Lexington suggests with uncharacteristic asperity, the Republican Party’s base is revealing its true colors, and has no one to blame but itself if it gets what’s coming to it.

Peggy Noonan came closer (and with more characteristic thoughtfulness) to the truth in a recent WSJ column about the “unprotected.” In attempting to understand the Trump phenomenon, her insight was that there is a conceptual, sympathetic, and empathetic gulf between the professional party politicos and the populace – the former blithely promoting and enacting policies the effects of which they will never feel; they are protected – the Republican voters are not, and this year their support of Trump is the only means of rebellion available to them against their out-of-touch party hierarchy.

Lexington might rejoin that whatever the specific reasons for the voters’ rejection of the established political professionals, the fact remains that these voters have determined to go with the ignorant boorishness that only Trump promotes.

It may well be, though, that there is a broader rebellion going on here, and not just among Republicans. Democrats in incredible numbers are plumping – with great enthusiasm and no small measure of violent intolerance – for a man whose social, economic, and political ideas would be as laughable as Trump’s were they not – at this very moment – the underlying cause of the stunning penury and repression of millions of people from Venezuela to China.

Clearly there is both nastiness and ignorance in the ranks of each party, and widespread rejection of establishment processes and individuals in both of them as well.

The parties abuse the system by using their bases’ fear of the other party to push platforms that don’t actually address their own base’s concerns. Rather, these “policies” are too often the product of cynical insider deal-making that perpetuates the power and control of the insiders, arrogantly spun to the voters as what is best for them, on the assumption that they have no practical alternative choices.

But this year shows us that both parties are in deep trouble. They have failed to represent their voters’ concerns. They have failed to inform their voters’ choices. They have spent their careers talking past their voters. And now they risk ending their careers as their voters talk, in turn, past them.