THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE AND THOMAS JEFFERSON
> I am writing to you for advice. I have a paper to write on Thomas >Jefferson for my college History class. I am thinking of writing on Thomas >Jefferson and the Declaration of Independance. I was just hoping you might >be willing to lend some ideas for a possible thesis, I know that you cannot >tell me what to write on but just wanted some ideas. I am pressed for time >and ideas, and hope you can help. Any help or suggestions would be greatly >appreciated. Thank you. Possible topics for a paper on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence might focus on the following areas: Why TJ, a "freshman congressman" who rarely, if ever, spoke publicly, and performed poorly when he did, was assigned the task of preparing the draft for the D of I. Probably because of his execellent performance on the "Summary View of the Rights of British America." Benjamin Franklin (or was it John Adams?) nominated him in committee to write the draft because he was the best writer. Check out his other writing/legal work and how this may have enlarged his reputation. The Summary View was considered too radical at first. Was Congress ready to turn to its most radical members in mid-1776? Compare Jefferson's first draft to the D of I as finally approved by Congress. Historian Meier says Congress improved it. Really? Was TJ a little TOO radical, as in his section on slavery? Check out some of the subtle changes, as in the preamble, when Jefferson wrote "endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights," which was changed to "certain inalienable rights." Did that make it less philosophical? Why drop "inherent"? Doesn't that tie natural rights into the nature of man? Jefferson compares the text of the draft and the final version in his Autobiography. But even the draft in the Autobiography apparently includes changes made by the committee. His draft in his own handwriting is available in the Memorial Edition of his Writings (Lipscomb & Bergh), and is also available online from the Library of Congress, I think. Earlier drafts had less "zing" than the final ones, but also had a different philosophical emphasis. There is an article in the journal, "The Eighteenth Century," vol. 25, no. 1, 1984, by Robert Ginsberg, "Suppose that Jefferson's Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence is a work of Political Philosophy." That could be helful in assessing the changes that were made by Congress and their significance. You might look into the contributions of the other members of the committee besides Jefferson. I had someone write me, trying to say that TJ wasn't the author of the D of I, that it was the product of a committee - - which is silly. Offhand, the committee contributed very little in the way of alteration. Just a word or two, here and there. Now, they may have done more in their first meeting, because they apparently discussed what the Declaration should contain, and then left it to TJ to do all the work. A more exact assessment of what they did contribute would be an interesting study. Historian Paula Meier belittles the significance of the D of I (and everything else about it, it seems), especially after the American Revolution. A good study could be made to show how she overstates her case. TJ certainly considered it his proudest achievement. My own view is that the D of I is the fundamental philosophical statement of American Self-Government. An interesting study could be made to show how the political principles enunciated there -- equality, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness (which is more than mere property), consent of governed, people's right to change government to what they think will effect their safety and happiness -- found practical realization in the U.S. Constitution. Many have written about the influence of Locke, Sidney, and other previous writers on the D of I. To what extent did Jefferson take those ideas, build on them, and actually go beyond those previous political theoriticians? I think it was more than he is usually given credit for, and I have written some on that myself on my other website, The Jeffersonian Perspective. See Individual Rights and Popular Sovereignty http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/7970/jefpco58.htm Although some of the above might seem better fit for a doctoral disseration, you should have no trouble finding resource materials. Gordon Wood"s "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," could probably be helpful. Paula Meier recent book on the Declaration could be useful to argue against. Garry Wills' book, "Inventing America," can help you on most of those topics. Bernard Bailyn's "Ideolgical Origins of the American Revolution" is an older book, but is a landmark work. There is an excellent bibliography in Willard Sterne Randall's "TJ, a Life," and you could probably find other helpful books there. Best wishes, Eyler Coates
How Thomas Jefferson affected history with the Declaration of Independence is an impossibly broad subject. The Dec defined for the ages the meaning of self-government and set an example for the whole world of what is a people's right.
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