Thomas Jefferson: Defining America, Chapter III

I'm putting the finishing touches on the third chapter of Thomas Jefferson: Defining America (I hope you've enjoyed reading excerpts from chapters one & two). Here's a sneak peak at chapter three, which is tentatively entitled, Independence.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Boasting a population of 30,000, Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies and a prosperous commercial hub. It was a natural location for the Second Continental Congress to gather. They were already six weeks into session by the time Jefferson appeared. Only two days after his arrival, a fellow delegate from Virginia, George Washington, would leave the city to assume command of the colonial forces assembling in Massachusetts. The citizen soldiers of this newly styled ‘Continental Army’ had somehow managed to bottle up the British force occupying Boston - the besieged redcoats having been badly bloodied following their pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill. 

The deepening conflict with Great Britain was all anyone could talk about. Jefferson would remark, “The present crisis is so full of danger and uncertainty that opinions here are various.”

Shuttered inside the Pennsylvania Statehouse (destined later to be known as Independence Hall), the oppressive summer heat and the long hours of toil exacted a wearying toll on the sixty-odd Congressional delegates - a body which contained some of the most prominent men from across the thirteen colonies. Among their number were Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Samuel Adams and John Hancock (Massachusetts), John Rutledge (South Carolina), John Jay (New York), Caesar Rodney (Delaware), Roger Sherman (Connecticut) and many others. 

Jefferson threw himself into the role of Congressman and soon caught the eye of John Adams, a short, pugnacious lawyer and patriot incendiary from Massachusetts who found Jefferson to be, “…prompt, frank, explicit and decisive.” Never one to participate in the hurly-burly of floor debate, Jefferson was a tireless behind-the-scenes worker who set his pen to good service upon the many committees which convened in the evening after the daily Congressional session concluded. 

John Dickinson of Pennsylvania led the moderate faction inside the Second Continental Congress. 

As the prospects for a peaceful settlement with Great Britain grew increasingly remote, Congressional leadership tasked Jefferson with drafting a document entitled the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms. It was to serve as a public justification of the defensive stance the colonies had been forced to take against British aggression and Jefferson used the platform to once again criticize the abuses perpetrated King George III’s government. John Dickinson, a noted Pennsylvania delegate and acknowledged leader of the moderate faction in Congress, leant his hand to the task as well.  Although the two men agreed on the central thesis of an America victimized by imperial overreach, they had major stylistic differences and Dickinson’s voice would ultimately dominate the text. 

Along with many others, Dickinson and the moderates still held out hope that reconciliation with the Mother Country could be achieved. This belief, however, sustained a serious blow in the days following the release of Causes and Necessities as word eventually reached Philadelphia in August of 1775 that King George III had rejected the so called 'Olive Branch Petition' recently sent by Congress to England.  The petition (which Jefferson also collaborated in writing) had extended the hand of negotiation to Britain in an effort to prevent further bloodshed, but Britain’s monarch unwisely slapped it away and declared the colonies to be in open rebellion. This event, when coupled with the release of Thomas Paine’s wildly successful separatist pamphlet Common Sense, immeasurably strengthened the position of Congress’ radical bloc. As 1775 drew to a close, talk of declaring total independence from Great Britain had grown perceptibly. Jefferson’s personal feelings on the matter hardened as he wrote that war was, “…heartily entered into, without a prospect of accommodation but through the effectual interposition of arms.”