All America Looks Up to Virginia;” Virginia and the Declaration of Independence

First draft of the Declaration of Independence (June 12-27)

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First draft of the Declaration of Independence (June 12-27) Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft in his second floor apartment of the new brick house in Philadelphia at the southwest corner of Seventh and Market Streets. The committee assigned the task of writing it met several times without Benjamin Franklin. Suffering from gout and incapacitated, Franklin wrote George Washington on June 21: “I know little of what has pass’d here, Except that a Declaration of Independence is preparing…” Earlier that day Jefferson had sent Franklin a copy of a draft “that had been read with some alterations by the committee.” “Will Doctr. Franklyn be so good as to peruse it,” wrote Jefferson, “and suggest alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?” The draft had been returned by the committee to Jefferson “to change a sentiment or two” and he did not want to return it to the committee until Franklin had an opportunity to read over it. Jefferson consulted John Adams, the Committee of Five on at least two occasions, and Benjamin Franklin before the Declaration was submitted to Congress on June 28.

Thomas Jefferson was less the author of the Declaration of Independence than he was the draftsman assigned by the committee. But Jefferson possessed a wealth of experience in political writing. His Summary View of the Rights of British America envisioned America’s relationship with Britain as an “imperial partnership” or “commonwealth of nations” – an empire of self-governing states. The document emphasized Parliament’s weaknesses. However, Summary View did not contain a doctrine of natural rights. Jefferson had also read John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government at least three times, and he also had a copy of Richard Henry Lee’s independence proposals and George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on June 6.

Jefferson would later be accused of plagiarism for his use of Mason’s Virginia Declaration, but at the time borrowing heavily from the writings of others was viewed as proper and acceptable. The declaration built the case that a contract existed between government and the people it governed, and that the people had agreed to this arrangement. Word of the declaration’s progress circulated through the convention. “We are passing the Rubicon,” noted an observer, “& our Delegates in Congress on the first of July will vote plump.” The committee continued its work on the declaration, eventually making a total of forty-seven changes, including the addition of three new paragraphs. On June 27 the five man committee drafting the declaration met for a final time to review the document. “We were all in a hurry,” remembered John Adams. “Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported.” On June 28 a “fair” (clean) copy of the committee’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was read in Congress.

On July 1 the Declaration was debated for nine hours “during which,” remembered Benjamin Harrison, “all powers of the soul [were] distended with the magnitude of the object.” But still no decision had been reached. The records are sparse for July 2, but the independence bloc was confident that Lee’s motion would pass. Sometime in the evening, Virginia’s independence resolution was approved by a vote of 12 to 0. (New York had not received positive instructions and abstained). Congress had made thirty-nine additional changes to Jefferson’s “original draft.” Most of the alterations were to the list of grievances against King George III. The most significant changes were the elimination of a paragraph that restricted the slave trade and statements critical of the British populace for participating in a war against Americans. Thomas Jefferson did not participate in the debate. He sat in silence and allowed John Adams to defend the declaration. The radicals had won: the ideology for American independence had been officially approved.


Virginia Signs the Declaration of Independence On August 2, 1776 fifty members of Congress placed their signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Carter Braxton, Thomas Nelson, and Francis Lightfoot Lee represented Virginia at the ceremony. No eyewitness accounts of this event remain. As the principal draftsman of the Declaration, Jefferson was accorded the honor of being Virginia’s first signer. Jefferson wrote his name so as to leave room for additional signatures above his. Harrison and Nelson, both elected to Congress in 1774, then added their signatures beneath Jefferson’s. Francis Lightfoot Lee and Carter Braxton, elected in August and December 1775, signed below the names of the more senior members. Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe returned to Congress in late August and signed the document. Lee, the most senior member of the Virginia delegation, deferred to Wythe and invited him to place his name at the top of the list of signatures. On August 27, 1776, fifty-year-old George Wythe, the revered senior member of Virginia’s delegation, placed his signature on the Declaration of Independence.

In the last two weeks of July, cheers and toasts had been raised throughout the colonies when the declaration was read, and several colonies – led by Virginia – had already adopted new state constitutions. There was, however, little time for celebration. Less than a hundred miles northeast of Philadelphia, a large, well equipped British force was collecting on Long Island, New York, preparing to crush the American “rebellion” in a single blow, before it could organize politically and contract foreign alliances. There, forty-three-year-old George Washington and a poorly organized collection of state militias and provincial soldiers that composed the “Continental Army” had initiated contact with British pickets near a watermelon patch in what would be the biggest battle of the American Revolution. For Virginia, this skirmish over watermelons was the culmination of more than two decades of divisive internal political conflict and some thirteen years of political dispute with the British home government over revenue and taxation issues.


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