Thomas Jefferson was just 33 years old when he wrote one of America's most important documents, the Declaration of Independence, but he almost didn't make it to Philadelphia in order to draft the document. Virginia chose Jefferson as an alternate delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775. When Payton Randolph, president of the Continental Congress and Speaker of the Virginia House, went back to Virginia on orders from the Royal Governor, Jefferson attended the congress in his place.
Before leaving for Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote down instructions for his fellow Virginia delegates, which detailed his beliefs about the colonists' rights, including the right to self-govern. Jefferson was ill on the way to Philadelphia and the instructions arrived before he did. They were published as a pamphlet called "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," which received distribution in the colonies and in England.
The Revolutionary War was already a year old by 1776, and the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia that year with the intention of declaring independence. When Jefferson arrived at the congress, he was selected to participate in the committee to draft a formal declaration of independence from Britain. The committee also included John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin and Robert R. Livingston. In a letter written in 1822, John Adams stated that the committee chose Jefferson and Adams to write the first draft, but Adams felt that Jefferson should write the draft alone because he was a better writer and a Virginian. He was also more popular than Adams.
Writing the Document
Jefferson was unhappy with his Philadelphia accommodations and rented the second floor of Jacob Graff's home, which was away from the city center. He worked in virtual seclusion and produced the first draft in three weeks. Some of his major influences included the "Virginia Declaration of Rights" by George Mason and his own first draft of a constitution for Virginia. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on a mahogany lap desk that he designed. Jefferson was also preoccupied during his writing by both personal and political events. He wanted to return to Virginia to help them draft their constitution, instead of writing the Declaration of Independence, and he was worried about his ill wife and children.
When Jefferson presented his draft to the committee, they made revisions before presenting it to the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress made extensive revisions before adopting the document, including the removal of an entire passage in which Jefferson blamed the slave trade on King George III. Jefferson was unhappy with the changes made to his work, but the Continental Congress adopted the revised version on July 4, 1776.
- U.S. History: Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson
- Eyewitness To History: Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776
- U.S. History: The Declaration of Independence: The Declaration House (Graff House)
- Library of Congress: Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence: Right to Institute New Government
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images