« PreviousContinue »
document which Jefferson prepared in the summer of 1774, to serve as instructions for the delegates from Virginia to the general Continental Congress at Philadelphia.
Jefferson was taken ill on the way to Williamsburg and obliged to return to Monticello. But he sent on two copies of his paper, one to Patrick Henry, the other to Peyton Randolph, who he was sure would be chosen chairman of the convention. Randolph placed his copy on the table for the members' perusal. They thought it “too bold for the present state of things,” and in its place drew up a briefer and milder set of instructions, in which they declared their "faith and true allegiance to His Majesty, King George the Third, our lawful and rightful sovereign," and their ardent wish for the return of the affection and commercial ties which formerly united both countries; protesting only against some specific abuses (notably Governor Gage's conduct in Massachusetts), without whose redress America could "neither be safe nor free nor happy."
The paper which Jefferson's colleagues generally thought “too bold for the present state of things," was nevertheless printed by some of the author's friends under the title, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. This celebrated pamphlet opens the list of American polemic and apologetic papers on the Revolution which Englishmen like Burke, Pitt, and Conway declared were unsurpassed in the literature of political argumentation. It was the boldest declaration of American rightsalmost a declaration of independence. It denied in toto the supremacy of Parliament over the colonies, asking by what right one hundred and sixty thousand electors in the island of Great Britain pretended to give laws to four million in the states (note the word !) of America. When the colonists left England, Jefferson maintained, they carried their liberties with them and escaped the control of their fellow Britons left behind as completely as their common ancestors who came over from Saxony escaped the rule of their German kinsfolk. Every act of Parliament touching the manufactures and trade of the Americans had been a usurpation and a wanton assault “upon the rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to us all.” The rapid succession of such acts during the reign of George III “pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery."
Jefferson reviews these acts: the revenue measures, the suspension of colonial legislatures, the punishment of Boston. He examines the conduct of George III: the vetoes on colonial laws, the arbitrary instructions to colonial governors, the exercise of feudal privileges over the soil, the landing of troops on our shores, the subordination of the civil to the military power. He entreats the King, as “the only mediatory power between the several states of the British Empire,” to recommend to Parliament the total revocation of its offensive acts, and himself to cease to sacrifice the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another. The language of the address from beginning to end is that of freemen claiming their rights, not suppliants asking a boon. The customary bending of the knee and lavishing of obsequious adjectives are wanting. Instead, there is protest, remonstrance, defiance, warning, and even exhortation. The young lawyer of Albemarle County dares to sermonize the ruler of the British Empire: "Open your breast, sire, to liberal and expanded thought. Let not the name of George the Third be a blot on the page of history. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail.” Intolerable insolence!
With the publication of the Summary View in 1774, as the delegates of the colonies were gathering in Philadelphia, the period of Jefferson's apprenticeship comes to a close. The crisis in his country's life was a milestone in his own. He had reached his political majority. Up to now he had served on committees, drawn up resolutions, signed remonstrances with his colleagues at the Raleigh Tavern, returning to his law practice or to his farms at Monticello. But from now on he became altogether a public servant. His law office was closed and the good-will and the clients turned over to his distant cousin, Edmund Randolph. And though he was to protest till the day of his release from the presidency, thirty-five years later, that he would have laid down high office any moment for the joy of returning to his estate, the call of his country and the response of his own lofty sense of responsibility to his country's service kept him almost a stranger to Monticello until he returned at last, ripe with age and honors, to spend his declining years amid the dream scenes of his youth.
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
By the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose. (Jefferson to John Randolph, November 29, 1775.)
WHEN unauthorized bodies meet to review and redress the policies of absolute kings, revolution has begun: witness the Convention Parliament and the Tennis Court Oath. Such a body were the sixty delegates of what Jefferson called “the American States of the British Empire,” who met on September 5, 1774, in the Carpenters' Hall of Philadelphia. “Certain persons,” the lord governor of Virginia called them, “who have presumed without his Majesty's authority or consent to assemble together." Their arrival was scarcely noticed by the Philadelphia newspapers, their session lasted only fifty-two days, and their measures were mild-for the majority of the delegates were still conservative. They sent a respectful petition to the King for a redress of grievances, not differing much in tone from that sent by the Stamp Act Congress nine years earlier, and adopted an “association” or nonimportation agreement to be binding on all the colonies. Their significance was rather in the meeting