Jefferson Scholarship

Thomas Jefferson

Bill Barker discusses the vast amount of historical study of Jefferson currently available and ponders why we are so interested in the man today.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. As July 4th nears, we turn our thoughts to independence. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and this is Independence Day. Today, I’m speaking with Bill Barker, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he’s Thomas Jefferson.

Lloyd: One of the things I wanted to talk about was your scholarship about Jefferson, and what you have learned about the man, and you must have learned probably more than anybody around. In the Declaration of Independence, originally the phrase was “life liberty and property.” That became “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What is happiness pursuit?

Bill Barker: Well there you have what I think is the distinct birthmark of the United States of America and what the new order of the ages, so to speak, is standing for, and that is the idea that even beyond the element of property, protection of property, safety of property, there is the element of human rights and human happiness – that no government nor an individual can deprive another of someone’s happiness. Now, that does not mean that they run rampant to pursue happiness wherever they so choose, in inflicting harm on another individual, in destroying someone’s property, absolutely not. That is why there are governments, as Jefferson said, to protect one from injury by another, but otherwise to leave us free to pursue our own industry and our own improvement. He is also commenting distinctly on the property of human bondage, that is slaves – one’s fellow man to be used as an element of property. And he is opening the doors very subtly towards abolition. He is a Virginian, the only Virginian on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, in fact the only Southerner on that committee – so he is subtly going beyond the lock-in standard of property to open the doors towards the recognition that even those we shackle and hold as property have a right to their happiness, to pursue their lives as they choose.

Lloyd: Did he have a religious view of the pursuit of happiness; did he think that religion played a part in happiness, or not?

Bill: According to the individual and how he should choose to look upon that, or to feel that. Jefferson is distinct throughout his life in saying simply, “I inquire of no person’s religion, nor do I bother any with my own. A person’s religion is solely between him and his maker.” No, Jefferson did not believe the civil authority holds any dependency on religious opinion. In fact, you do not have to be religious to be either moral or virtuous. Now, that is not a denial of religion, but rather it is an effort to promote what Jefferson called “a freedom for religion.” That we’re free – we’re free to hold whatever religions opinion we choose, or we’re free to hold no religious opinion, if we choose. This is ultimate freedom. It’s the freedom particularly that Cicero announced thousands of years ago, and Jefferson delighted to refer to Cicero and to quote him. Cicero said the definition of liberty is simply that state of freedom in which man finds himself not under the control of another man – and that means under the control of a church, or the religious opinion of another man. So, distinctly, pursuit of happiness is how the individual should find it, but not – as I referenced earlier and he often referenced – to allow liberty to become license.

Lloyd: You mentioned earlier Jefferson was the only Southerner on the committee to write the Declaration of Independence. Why do you think they reached out to Thomas Jefferson, Virginian, as the principal author?

Bill: Well, John Adams perhaps said it best; he said a Virginian should be at the head of this business and that Thomas Jefferson wrote better than any other person in Congress. Jefferson had already become well known as an author, particularly for authoring “The Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which was published in Williamsburg, the summer of 1774. That particular pamphlet was brought up to the very first Congress –the Congress Jefferson did not attend because he fell ill – was published in Philadelphia, distributed amongst the delegates of the Congress, and though Jefferson’s name was not affixed to it, it was anonymous, it became known that Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was the author, so in essence he became known as an author even in his absence. When he finally arrived in the spring of 75 for his first congressional venture, he was already known. His reputation preceded him.

Lloyd: You may not know this, but I am curious, do you know how Jefferson felt at having the Continental Congress editing his work?

Bill: We do know.

Lloyd: Oh, we do?

Bill: He was exasperated…

Lloyd: Oh...(laughs)

Bill: …he was exasperated over I think he put it “the emasculation and mutilation of my Declaration of Independence.” He was very concerned that certain general phrases had been altered and some – to his greatest interest – just expunged, thrown out, particularly that statement amongst the grievances finding the king truly a tyrant for continuing to wage cruel war against a people who never did him any harm. Slavery – he thought he could just sneak in to the declaration a grievance that would open people’s attention that we’ve got to get rid of slavery here in the new United States, particularly as the king would not allow us to do it; now we’re masters of our own destiny.

Lloyd: I have read some of John Adams occasionally. He seemed to take some credit for getting the Declaration of Independence through the Congress, but he never took any for writing it, but he was on the committee, wasn’t he?

Bill: He was on the committee, and he was a definite influence on the committee, I think. There were five men on the committee – Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson. I think the three most influential people on the committee were Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams – Franklin perhaps more so than Adams. Though Franklin did not want to write the declaration, I think Adams had aspirations of being the author of it, but I think finally gave in to recognize Jefferson was the most suitable and best equipped. So, I think Adams served well, though Jefferson might have authored it, to help usher it through the Continental Congress, he kept that congressional debate focused and on a pathway toward resolution.

Lloyd: Why do you suppose he rewrote the Declaration of Independence in his own hand and sent it to Abigail?

Bill: (Laughs heartily) Well, to inform her, to enlighten her, and to just show her the business – I think he wrote her in that letter – that has been going on that he has been privileged and honored to be part of. He certainly wanted to keep Abigail informed, as she kept him informed of what was going on back in Massachusetts.

Lloyd: That was the only interesting fact that I have ever read that sort of stunned me… I wasn’t prepared to learn that. He copied it out in his own hand before he sent it on home.

Bill: Yeah, that’s right I wonder whether copies would have been available, well, surely there would have been the Broadside that was printed up by Dunlap, absolutely why didn’t he just fold that up and send it back to Massachusetts, maybe he did, who knows?

Lloyd: No, no they’ve still got the handwritten one (laughs.) A writer’s question, when Jefferson was finished and it went to the Continental Congress; did he sit there wishing he had just had maybe one more day? Did Jefferson want another try, or did he figure that Congress was going to so botch it up anyway, it wouldn’t matter?

Bill: No, I don’t think so. I think he had plenty of time, because once the news arrived in Philadelphia from Virginia that Virginia had proclaimed itself free and independent of Great Britain, it then became the business of the Congress to move forward and to follow this one way or another, and that is why President Hancock promoted the committee of the whole, so to speak in Congress, that now all the colonies go in amongst their delegates and decide do they want to follow Virginia or do they not want to follow Virginia. At the same time, John Hancock appointed the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence – if it should be necessary, and I think it was almost a fait accompli that it would have been. So they had nearly the entire month of June to write – the committee, that is – to pull together and write the Declaration of Independence, so I think we know Jefferson spent three full days to write that first draft on four sheets of paper, and then proceeded with the committee to make alterations, and to rewrite it, and to finally come out with several other drafts before it was presented to Congress…so I think he did have enough time; he had a month almost.

Lloyd: When you think of how long it has lasted, you sort of wonder they could have got it done in a month. It really is a remarkable document to get written that quickly, even though it’s not that quick.

Bill: It is true, and yet these are things that these gentlemen were educated to know and to understand. They all – with the exception of Roger Sherman, and Benjamin Franklin, actually, Benjamin Franklin was self-taught – Livingston, Adams, and Jefferson had the privilege of a formal education, this was a classical education, so they had acquainted themselves with ancient history and past civilizations. They knew Latin; they knew Greek; and for this purpose, I think Jefferson has often said there is not one new or original thought in the Declaration of our American Independence. It’s all been written before; it’s all been argued and debated before, and you may find it in the elementary books of public right – the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke.

Lloyd: Do you wonder, as I sometimes do… Jefferson, Adams, Franklin… 200 years ago; and they are still finding new scholarship. People are still interested in them. McCullough’s book about John Adams – best seller – who would have thought it? Little short round guy…

Bill: Yeah, and I think because David McCullough himself discovered in Adams’ papers that Adams never thought anyone would remember him. I think the statement Adams made was all they’ll ever think was that Benjamin Franklin touched the ground with his lightning rod and up popped George Washington on a white horse to lead the revolution. And this intrigued David McCullough and he thought “I need to learn more about this guy,” because we don’t know that much about him; and who was he? I mean this is an intriguing personality. So, I think they are intriguing publicly. They found themselves fascinating, and I think for that fact alone they provided much for posterity.

Lloyd: Dr. Franklin certainly though he was one charming man.

Bill: (Laughs) He did, and Jefferson used to say of Adams, “You cannot be in his company but for a few moments and feel a great affection for him.”

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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