The Declaration of Independence—Its Roots Are Found in a Virginia Document, Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America
The Continental Congress assigned to Thomas Jefferson the task of drafting a Declaration of Independence and then cut one-quarter of what he wrote. The original text survives, however, as does a copy made by John Adams of what remained after a first edit. Those copies, plus a 1776 printing of the finished document, are displayed in The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the special exhibition now at the Virginia Historical Society.
Jefferson got the job because he essentially had already written the declaration in his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America, a landmark in Virginia history. A contemporary printing (Williamsburg, 1774) is displayed at the VHS in The Story of Virginia exhibition. Jefferson’s goal was to persuade the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress to take a forceful posture toward Great Britain, but in 1774 he stepped back from the brink: “It is not our wish, nor our interest, to separate from her.” The pamphlet stated the logical conclusion to the colonial protest movement that had begun in 1765: “the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.”
The importance of Summary View is proven by the reappearance in the Declaration of most of its ideas, beginning with Jefferson’s relentless attack of the king. For instance, in Summary View, Jefferson wrote that rights are derived from the laws of nature and are given by God to all people; that “free trade with all parts of the world” is a “natural right” that has been cut off by Great Britain; that “a series of oppressions” have been pursued by the king; that he has suspended colonial legislatures; that he has “laid his governors under such restrictions that they can pass no law”; and that he is “send[ing] over . . . mercenaries to invade & deluge us in blood.”
I explained in a blog posted on va-rep.org that Jefferson’s condemnation of the king for the trafficking of slaves was argued in the Summary View and then reappeared in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration but was deleted by Congress from the final document.
Another interesting passage was reduced to the following sentence in both the first and final versions of the Declaration: “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” In his Summary View, Jefferson had theorized at length that the first settlers to America had made a clean break from the mother country when they emigrated at their own expense in order to live freely and harmoniously, without kings or lords, as had their Saxon ancestors before the Norman Conquest. If the Saxons left their native wilds in the north of Europe to settle in England, and no “claim of superiority or dependence [was] asserted over them by that mother country from which they had migrated,” why should George III and parliament assert a claim of superiority over the American colonies?
Jefferson’s famous statements about equality and unalienable rights (which take up less than one-fifth of the document) use language influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, written a month earlier in June 1776. Both Jefferson and Mason drew heavily from the English philosopher John Locke, whose Treatises of Government were written a hundred years earlier. Check out Mason’s Declaration of Rights; you may be surprised.
The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is sponsored by Altria with additional support from The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and The Elmon T. Gray Fund for Virginia History.
William M. S. Rasmussen is lead curator and Lora M. Robins curator at the Virginia Historical Society.