Thomas Jefferson: Defining America, Chapter II

Unlike his contemporary Patrick Henry (the fella depicted prominently at right) Thomas Jefferson had no talent for oratory, preferring instead to express himself via the written word.

The work continues on my recently announced biography of Thomas Jefferson. Today I'd like to share with you a portion of Thomas Jefferson: Defining America, Chapter II... 

Amidst this climate of great tension, Thomas Jefferson began establishing a reputation as a powerful voice for colonial interests, though in reality it was not Jefferson’s speechifying which drew him notice. Possessed of a soft spoken, high pitched voice, the gangly, 6-foot-2-inch Jefferson was nervous and lacked confidence when addressing an audience - a great handicap during a time when considerable stock was placed in oratorical ability.  While firebrands like Patrick Henry garnered widespread fame for their public speeches, the bookish, restlessly intellectual Jefferson took up his pen and crafted well aimed written arguments; arguments which circulated extensively amongst his Virginia peers and eventually throughout the colonies as a whole. 

The most notable of these writings was Jefferson’s, A Summary View of the Rights of British America - a document originally conceived as an instruction manual for Virginia’s delegation to the First Continental Congress but which was eventually repurposed as a widely promulgated Patriot pamphlet. In A Summary View Jefferson unleashed a withering critique of King George III and the British Parliament, boldly declaring, “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”  

Jefferson's political career began in Virginia's House of Burgesses - the colony's legislative chamber. 

Although great cultural differences divided them (dialect, religion, economy etc.), Jefferson was quick to comprehend that the thirteen colonies must make common cause in order to effectively combat the ill-considered colonial polices of Great Britain. Jefferson helped to spearhead the creation of Virginia’s ‘committee of correspondence’ - a group of like minded Patriot politicians who wrote letters to similarly situated allies throughout the colonies in order to disseminate news, share ideas and coordinate the resistance effort. Such cooperation would result in non-importation agreements, economic boycotts and, most importantly, a deepening sense of colonial solidarity.  

Not all were in agreement. Those colonists who dissented from the Patriot view were called Loyalists, and they were great in number, accounting for roughly a fifth of the white colonial population. Although Loyalists oftentimes agreed that Britain was guilty of overreach in her dealings with America, they disapproved of the increasingly confrontational behavior of the Patriot faction. Confident that a just equilibrium would ultimately be restored between King George and his colonies, their first loyalty remained with the mother country. There were divisions within Jefferson’s own family. His close cousin John Randolph was a prominent loyalist who would eventually relocate to England as revolutionary fever spread at home. Despite this, Jefferson and Randolph would continue to exchange letters wherein Randolph once observed, “We both of us seem to be steering opposite courses…the success of either lies in the womb of time.”  

The city of Boston became a flashpoint for the conflict between royal authorities and Patriot agitators as the Boston Massacre (1770) gave way to the Boston Tea Party (1773) which in turn led to the Boston Port Bill (1774) and the occupation of the city itself by British troops. As the rippling outrage swept forth from New England, Jefferson said the effect was like, “…a shock of electricity, arousing every man, and placing him erect and solidly on his centre.”  

The Boston Tea Party (1773) was a critical moment in the buildup to America's war of independence.