Jefferson attended the Second Virginia Convention in the Spring of 1775. The members of this convention chosen Jefferson as one of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Before he left for Philadelphia, the Virginia Assembly asked him to answer a message of peace from Lord North the British prime minister. North had proposed that Parliament would not try to tax the settlers if they would tax themselves. Jefferson’s Reply to Lord North was more moderate than the summary view. But he rejected North’s proposals. Jefferson insisted that a government had been set up in America for the colonists, not for the British. The Continental Congress approved Jefferson’s letter to North.
The Declaration of Independence
Jefferson took a leading part in the Continental Congress. After the Revolutionary War began, he was asked to draft a Declaration of the causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms. The Congress found this declaration “too strong”.
The more moderate John Dickinson drafted a substitute, which included much of Jefferson’s original version.
During the Spring of 1776, sentiment rapidly grew stronger in favor of independence. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced his famous resolution that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and in dependent states”. Congress appointed a committee to draw up a declaration of independence. On the Committee were Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.
The committee unanimously asked Jefferson to prepare the draft and approved it with few changes. Congress began debuting the declaration on July 2 and adopted it on July 4 1776. The Declaration of Independence remains Jefferson’s “best-known work. It set forth with moving eloquence, supported by strong legal argument, the position of the American revolutionaries. It affirmed belief in the natural rights of all people.
Few of the ideas were new. Jefferson said his object was “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind”. For a description of the Declaration.
In September 1776, Jefferson resigned from Congress and returned to the Virginia House of Delegates.
He had no intersection military life and didn’t fight in the Revolutionary War.
He felt that he could be more useful in Virginia as a lawmaker. His first moves toward social reform involved land distribution. A few wealthy slaveholders controlled Virginia.
The people in this largest colony suffered from uneven distribution of land. The colonial government closely restricted voting privileges and limited educational opportunities.
In practice, a great deal of religious tolerance existed. But the Anglican Church was established by law.
Jefferson sponsored a bill abolishing entail, which requires property owners to leave their land to specified descendants, rather than disposing of it as they wish. Jefferson then succeeded in outlawing primogeniture, whereby all land passes to the eldest sons without entail and primogeniture, great estates could be broken up. Jefferson described the purposes of land reform when he wrote “instead of an aristocracy of virtue and talent”.
At this time in Virginia, only people who owned land could vote. After large estates were broken up, more vote. The legislature passed another bill introduced by Jefferson providing that immigrants could become naturalized after living in Virginia for two years. Even more important were Jefferson’s bills designed to assure religious toleration and to abolish the special privileges of the Anglican Church in Virginia. Jefferson aroused hostility most only among Anglicans, but also among other deamination’s, which feared that a separation of church and state would loosen all religious ties. Virginia ended the Anglican Church’s position as a state church in 1779. It took the Church’s clergymen off the public payroll and exempted Virginians from paying takes to support the church.
In 1786, when Jefferson was in France, the assembly passed his Statue of Religious Freedom, which guaranteed religious liberty in Virginia. Jefferson also worked to revise Virginia’s legal system. He pushed through many reforms, especially in the land law and the criminal law. The legislature defeated his elaborate plan for a system of free public education with a state-supported university, but parts of this plan later became law.
Jefferson considered attempting to end slavery in Virginia. But he took no strong stand because he felt the people of his state were not ready for such a major step.
Jefferson had numerous of slaves, but he believed slavery was morally wrong and couldn’t exist in the United States.
He hoped the younger generation would end society’s dependence on this system. “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that those people are to be free”.
The Virginia Assembly elected Jefferson governor for one year terms from 1779 to 1780. During his administration, the state suffered severely from the effects of the Revolutionary War.
At the request of General George Washington, Jefferson had stripped Virginia of its defenses in order to aid the American Army.
Among those who recruited Virginians for military service was James Monroe.
Jefferson and Monroe form a lasting friendship.
British troops under Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis invaded Virginia in 1781. The state could put up little resistance. Jefferson himself barely escaped capture on June 4, while troops led by General Banastre Tarletan swept down on Monticello.
Jefferson’s term had ended on June 2. The Virginia legislature chose Thomas Nelson Jr. the top officer of the state militia, to succeed Jefferson as governor. Jefferson was criticized for the state’s lack of resistance against the British invasion. An official investigation cleared him of blame. But many years passed before Jefferson regained prestige in his own state. The criticism wounded him deeply, and he left public office with genuine relief.
Jefferson returned to Monticello embittered and determined to give up public life forever. He soon began writing his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784-1785).
This book included much information on Virginia on his own beliefs and ideals. The death of his wife Martha in September 1782, left him steamed and distraught. For several months, he spoke to few people and wrote to none. Jefferson was elected to Congress in 1783. He accepted the office because he felt it would take his mind off of his personal tragedy. During his year in Congress, he served as Chairman of several Committees. He devised a decimal system of currency that was approved by Congress. He also piloted through Congress the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. Most important was Jefferson’s work on the Ordinance of 1784 and the Land Ordinance of 1785. These measures formed the basis for all later American land policies.
The problem of western lands had troubled the Colonies from the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Several Colonies claimed land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Virginia, under Jefferson’s leadership, gave up its claims to the Northwest Territory in 1784.
Other states followed and the territory was created. Problems of how to govern the area and how to dispose of its land then arose. Congress appointed two committees 16 consider the issues and made Jefferson chairman of both.
In 1784, Jefferson submitted a draft of an ordinance for the political organization of the western lands. It would have divided the entire region into several states. Each would eventually be admitted to the Union on a basis of complete equality with the original 13 States. Jefferson’s provision forbidding slavery west of the Appalachians lost by a single vote.
The Ordinance of 1784 never went into effect, but it furnished the basis for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.