The very first Fourth of July

Thomas Jefferson was not the first choice to write the Declaration of Independence. He accepted the assignment reluctantly, but he brought genius to the project, including the 35 most important words in the English language.

By Clay S. Jenkinson | It wasn’t widely known that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence until a quarter century later when he stood for the presidency of the United States. At the time when the 33-year-old Virginian sat down to write America’s birth certificate at his portable writing desk in a boarding house on Seventh and Market streets in Philadelphia in the third week of June 1776, he was a relatively unknown figure in national circles.

He had a reputation for being a hard reader, a brilliant scholar, and a lucid crafter of English prose, but he did not take part in the sometimes-heated debates that were propelling the 13 American colonies toward independence. John Adams later reported that “during the whole Time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together.”

Jefferson was a shy man and a homebody, who had lingered so long at Monticello in the spring of 1776 that he nearly missed the opportunity to write the document that secured his immortality. He did not finally leave Virginia until early May. His wife Martha was never in robust health. She would die in 1782 at the age of 33. His mother Jane had died on the last day of March — suddenly, of a stroke. He lingered at home for five weeks following her death, suffering from what he called his “periodical headache,” some sort of severe tension headache (possibly migraine) that forced him to sit alone in a darkened room for days, even weeks, at a time.

By the time he reached Philadelphia in mid-May, the American Revolution was picking up speed. On May 15, the Congress passed a resolution — the work of John Adams — urging each colony to establish its own post-colonial government. On June 9, a committee of five was appointed to draw up a statement justifying American independence. Two members dropped away immediately. That left Jefferson, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. Franklin preferred not to undertake the assignment. Adams prevailed on Jefferson to write the first draft, citing three reasons. First, Adams believed that a Virginian should take the lead. Second, Adams acknowledged that many delegates to the Continental Congress found him obnoxious. Third, Adams said Jefferson wrote 10 times better than he did.

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Clay Jenkinson is editor-at-large of Governing.

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