tv Thomas Jefferson on Declaring Independence CSPAN May 23, 2020 10:01am-10:24am EDT
involved in creating the declaration of independence and what he hopes americans might learn from it. this video is courtesy of thomas jefferson's monticello in charlottesville, virginia. thomas jefferson: oh, my, well, i have finished. and good afternoon indeed, mr. light, and to all of our friends, welcome once again here to our house, to monticello. mr. light, as you refer of course to patriots' day, so we have heard it now referred to ourselves in virginia, nothing could please us more in virginia to be reminded, if you will, about our initial associations with massachusetts. yes, patriots' day is something that we are happy to be reminded of, as i know all of our friends in massachusetts continue to be reminded of that occasion in which the citizen body there
stood staunchly against the further encroachments of the british upon their rights, upon their property. if i remember, it occurred in three particular villages. lexington and concord, and let it not be forgotten, menotomy. i believe that they now refer to menotomy as arlington. and i hope it is not forgotten because that is the one of the three where the british actually surrendered. i think they lost about 25 souls that day, but, overall, amongst the three villages, 500 british lost their lives. i was here at monticello, and i started on my way to williamsburg. from williamsburg, i was then going to journey to philadelphia for the second continental congress. well, i had been very much, at that time, in the spring of 1775, considering to remain an
englishman. i was proud of it. i did not care for independency. i desired to continue dependency. great britain provided a safety and defense, particularly on the frontier. but it was that day in april of 1775 which i will never forget. cut all the sense and concerns for reconciliation, and in its place, caused a frenzy of revenge, which was seized by all ranks of the people. that was the day, if you will, that i decided to cross the rubicon. and i think so many of us as well decided here in virginia we would ally ourselves further with massachusetts bay. your next question, mr. light? >> yeah, mr. president, some may not realize that more than a year passed between the opening
shots of the revolution at lexington and concord and the adoption of the declaration of independence. why did it take so long? thomas jefferson: you asked me, why did it take so long for us to begin to react, if you will, to what occurred in massachusetts that spring of 1775 to what eventually became the decision to pronounce ourselves free and independent of great britain. well, as you know, history and improvement and progress is never lineal. things take time. may i be seated, if you will? thank you. thank you, mr. light. i recall when john adams and i many years later had a conversation about when the american revolution actually began. mr. adams said he recalled it began for him by bearing witness to the protests of his cousin, sam adams, there in boston.
it was in protest of the stamp act. that was march of 1765. well, i immediately replied to him, mr. adams, i remember at the same time, march of 1765 in williamsburg, virginia, the protest of patrick henry in opposition to the stamp act. mr. adams then looked at me as i looked at him, and we realized the american revolution had begun 10 years before lexington and concord. it began in the minds of americans. so, you asked for that period of one year before we proclaimed independency after we learned of the actions at lexington, concord, and menotomy. well, i can tell you that, when we gathered in philadelphia that spring of 1775 for the second continental congress, we decided immediately we must come together strong with an army, arm ourselves, so all of the
various colonial militias came together to form an american army. and then i am proud to recall that we had to commission a general of our american army. the very first time that we commissioned a general. as englishmen born in the colonies of great britain, we could never rise to the rank of a general. we could only be colonels of militia. and so, we commissioned colonel george washington to be our general. we then of course wrote a petition declaring we had the necessity to take up arms. i was invited to write it, though i was somewhat harsh in my writing, and so, they gave it to john dickinson to refine. and then, they asked me to write an olive branch petition and answer to lord north's proposals for reconciliation. i was a bit more amenable in those jottings.
so we sent both to great britain and waited for the reply of parliament. and we waited. and we waited, through the autumn and through the winter of 1775 and 1776. there was no reply from parliament, except what we read in english newspapers, to wit, i quote, "these colonies are now officially in a state of rebellion." and so it was that virginia decided she would be the first, the first to proclaim her independency. and so, on the 15th of may, 1776 -- i beg your pardon, citizens, a virginian would always like to think they are the first at anything. virginia was not the first to proclaim her independency. it was rhode island. rhode island about a month before, in april of 1776,
proclaimed her independency, though solely on behalf of herself. a month later, virginia provided the resolution for independency on behalf of all of our colonies. next question, mr. light. >> yes, we're curious, how were you chosen to write the declaration of independence? thomas jefferson: oh, you asked how i was chosen to be the author of our declaration. well, first, of course, we had to decide how we would react to the resolution of virginia for independency. that was read by my countryman, colonel richard henry lee. if i remember, it was the 7th of june they had the continental congress in philadelphia. well, it caused an immediate consternation, particularly amongst the smaller colonies, rhode island included, let alone delaware. how would they be expected to follow the resolution of virginia?
we considered ourselves the largest, the most populated, the wealthiest. so president john hancock created the entire continental congress as a committee of the whole, to gather amongst ourselves in individual caucuses and decide how we should proceed. do we really want independency? and then he appointed another committee of five men to draft our declaration of american independency. now, mind you, this was not a fait accompli. we did not know that the congress would vote for independency, but we wanted to be prepared. now, of the five men appointed to the committee, well, reflect for a moment, mr. john adams was from, that's right, massachusetts. mr. roger sherman, connecticut. robert r. livingston from new york. dr. franklin, pennsylvania. and mr. jefferson, virginia.
i was the only one on the committee south of the line drawn by messrs. mason and dixon. now, we all hoped that dr. franklin would be the author. he was our mentor, our elder, but franklin, oh, he cared not to take on that responsibility. i think he replied, gentlemen, i care not for anything else i may write to receive the scrutiny of a committee. he looked at me, and it was mr. adams, john adams, who suggested i be the author. well, i said, "no, mr. adams, you must write it." he said, "oh, no, you must write it." i said, "no, you." and mr. adams replied, "i am generally considered obnoxious, disliked. no, you have quite the flair for fluid and felicitous writing. i think you should write it." "besides that," he said, "a virginian ought to be at the head of this business." yes, we had put forth that resolution for independency
first. your next question, mr. light? >> what sources of inspiration did you draw on in drafting the document? thomas jefferson: you asked me what sources of inspiration did i draw upon in drafting our declaration. well, firstly, i would tell you that i still write. i still write on this lap desk, this slope, if you will. you can even refer to it as a laptop. this is my design, and it was created by my cousin, mr. benjamin randolph,a cabinet maker in philadelphia, created at that time, 1775 and 1776. i set about on this not to write anything new or original. i drew on the sources of the justinian code of the 6th century. i drew on the sources of the writings of john locke. i drew on mr. thomas paine's pamphlet, "common sense."
all of this together provided a foundation. nonetheless, the virginia declaration of rights written by my friend, colonel george mason. he wrote that virginia declaration of rights at the same time that i was writing our declaration of american independence. mr. light, a further question, if you will. >> how long did it take you to draft the document? thomas jefferson: that is a very good question. if i can recall, it took me some time. you asked me how long it took me to write the declaration. well, i believe it took me three days. three days to write that declaration. in fact, i have here one of the first drafts. there were several drafts. three days to write the declaration on four sheets of paper. now, many of you may wonder, mr.
jefferson, that is quite a long time to simply write a declaration of independence. as you just said, everything was there for you to utilize. you were not designed to put forth anything new or original. well, citizens, i will tell you, i am guilty of something that you all are guilty of. oh, yes, not a one of us can escape. i make mistakes. and it is not easy to erase ink. so, when i would go back over what i wrote, i would cross out what i did not care for, i would write the correction above or beneath. i would transcribe that later in the evening. and the next day, i would make more mistakes. so that continued for a good three days. and then, i had to hand my draft to the other four gentlemen, to the committee. oh, they were extensive hours of labor there in that little room on the second floor of a newly built brick townhouse in philadelphia city.
i believe it was on the corner, the southwest corner of seventh and high street. i believe they call high street market street now in philadelphia. thank you, mr. light, for bringing back those memories of quite a labor on paper. next question, sir. >> mr. president, in philadelphia, there was a young man that accompanied you, robert hemings. he was enslaved to you. did his status as your property seem a contradiction to the words you were writing in the declaration of independence? thomas jefferson: mr. light, you asked me about robert hemings. robert hemings, who accompanied me to philadelphia those years of 1775 in 1776. do i remember him? do i consider that, as he was my property, as his family were my
property, that it is a terrible contradiction to the principles of our declaration? well, mr. light, i can assure you that i had inherited, if you will, the hemings family from my late wife. they were part of her dowry. they became my property in 1772 when i married. and, if you will, those few years later in 1775, yes, robert hemings was my coachman. and he drove me up to philadelphia. do you know he was only 15 years old at that time? i remember as we entered the city, one of my first interests was to have him inoculated against the smallpox. and so, i paid dr. william shippen to pursue that inoculation. dr. shippen had inoculated me nearly 10 years earlier. yes, and robert returned in
1776. he remembered all of those individuals, all of us who met there in the old state house in philadelphia. he knew who they were. he perhaps knew more about them than i did. well, he continued to be my coachman until i went to france. and after five years, returning here to monticello in 1789, well, i had learned robert hemings had married. he married a woman then living in fredericksburg. her name was dolly. and robert then accompanied me the following year, 1790, when we went to new york. that was where our government was first seated under our constitution. and it was during that time, about 1790, if i remember, that robert desired to live with his wife. she had moved to richmond at that time. and so, he went to richmond to be with her.
and he became acquainted with a doctor, a dr. strauss, i believe his name was. he was a french emigre, though he was of german lineage. and several years later, robert asked if he might be with his wife entirely, that he might be free. and so it was, yes, i think it was christmas eve, 1794, i manumitted robert hemings. i freed him. he was the first of all of my people that i freed. would that there could have been many more. you asked me if this was all a contradiction to our declaration of american independence. of course it is. we all know it is. i am afeard that not one of our generation is going to live to see us own up to these principles that we might not all
be free. we are born free, each and every one of us, under the eyes of nature and nature's god. but lamentably, lamentably, we are born into the laws of man. it is a drastic contradiction, and i do trust that the future, the future will judge us most harshly. your next question, mr. light. >> what did the declaration mean and represent to the american cause in 1776? thomas jefferson: you asked me what did our declaration mean in 1776. it meant to be a recognition of what i just referred to as the natural rights of man, the
inherent rights of man, the rights that are given to mankind not by any government and not by any ruler, the rights given to man by nature and nature's god. everyone is entitled to this, and this is why governments are created, in order to protect and defend the inherent rights of every individual. and that means equal and exact justice pursuant to it. but again, improvement and progress is never lineal. and this is what we continued to argue and debate. we desired to put this before the world in clear and simple form and terms, if you will, an expression of the american mind, and thereby gain the ascent accordingly of man. mr. light, do you have another question for me? >> one final question, president jefferson. how do you hope future generations will read the
declaration of independence? thomas jefferson: you asked me how do i hope future generations will look back on our declaration of american independence, how they will judge us. well, i answer that i hope future generations will continue to read our declaration of american independence. there were many people when i wrote that document who could not read, and i am hopeful that, in the future, we may have a universal system of education so that everyone will have that opportunity and read and reread our declaration. i wrote it in order that it could be publicly read, and let us never forget those occasions, too. let us look forward in the future to a continual recollection and refreshment of these rights, the inalienable
rights of mankind. and let us realize that all eyes are opening and will continue to open to these rights. let us realize, if you will, that that the steady stream of the light of science will move us forward to recognize the palpable truth. and that truth is simply that the mass of mankind have not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a few booted and spurred ready to ride him by the grace of god. no. no, let the future continue to work and argue and debate to make the principles of our declaration universal, not only for ourselves, but for the family of man across the globe. i thank you, mr. light, i thank you, my fellow citizens, for this opportunity to enjoy our conversation today. i think now, if you will allow me, i should like to meet the
post rider so that i may deliver to him this letter i have just written to mr. adams. we have been enjoying the most delightful correspondence these last several years. and imagine, in another six years, it will be the year 26. an anniversary, if you will, of our declaration, let alone the independency of our remarkable nation, which i have always referred to as the world's best hope. you know, mr. adams and i have often had differences of opinion, but we realize as americans that a difference of opinion ought never be a difference of principle. and though he may have opinions of a particular political nature, and i may have my own particular opinions of an opposite political nature, there is one thing that mr. adams and i recognize. let us not be known for party. if we are to be known by any party, or the label thereof, let us be known simply as the spirit
of 1776. i look forward to meeting you all again, enjoying further of your questions. i take leave now in order to continue my communication, and i look forward when we meet more personally and visit here at our house, monticello. i remain your humble and obedient servant, thomas jefferson. godspeed. announcer: up next, thomas jefferson, portrayed by bill barker, discusses his love of gardening from the west lawn of monticello. he talks about his planting methods, experiments, and the enslaved people who tended and maintained his gardens. he also recounts how he learned about new plants in his travels to europe and from lewis and clark's travels across the west, and how he introduced those plants to american society. this vid i