Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10 Immortal Declaration

JEFFERSON reached Philadelphia on May 14, 1776. It was high time he made his appearance; the delay of an additional month or so in his return and he would have missed his chance of entering the company of the immortals and perhaps have shifted his entire career to one of modest obscurity.

Events were moving at a furious pace. The once limited revolt had flamed to a full-fledged revolution. Benedict Arnold had invaded Canada in the hope of capturing that base of operations from the British and lost most of his army; the tide of war engulfed North and South together; Tom Paine's wing-tipped words in Common Sense were being eagerly absorbed in every village and hamlet; and France, the traditional enemy of England, was pondering possible intervention in the heaven-sent struggle.

The movement for outright independence was growing apace. More and more the once-dreaded phrase was coloring the thoughts and speech of the colonists. Tom Paine clad it in roseate hues and thundered it aloud. John Adams and his cousin Sam harkened to the thunder and exulted. "Every Post and every Day rolls in upon us Independence like a Torrent," cried John. South Carolina instructed its delegates to Congress to proclaim independence. John Page, Jefferson's boyhood friend, wrote vehemently to him: "For God's sake declare the Colonies independant at once, & save us from ruin."1 The "Torrent" was indeed beginning to roll.

But the radicals--and these included Jefferson--realized that they had to make haste slowly. As late as February 13, 1776, a Congressional committee had actually reported out an address to the Colonies written by James Wilson of Pennsylvania which emphatically disavowed any intention of seeking independence and declared "that what we aim at, and what we are entrusted by you to pursue, is the Defence and the Re-establishment of the constitutional Rights of the Colonies."2

Richard Henry Lee, one of the more radical members of Congress, was champing at the bit. Vehemently he exhorted the equally fiery Patrick Henry: "Ages yet unborn, and millions existing at present, must rue or bless that Assembley [of Virginia], on which their happiness or misery will so eminintly depend. Virginia has hitherto taken the lead in great affairs, and many now look to her with anxious expectation, hoping that the spirit, wisdom, and energy of her councils, will rouse America from the fatal

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