Thomas Jefferson Makes a Name For Himself
Thomas Jefferson first made a name for himself with the publication of A Summary View of the Rights of British America.
A Summary View became famous throughout the colonies, and it’s author’s pen would thereafter be used to do great things.
In July of 1774, Thomas Jefferson was a 31-year-old man sitting in Virginia’s House of Burgesses for the fifth consecutive session.
Up until this point, Thomas had been known as a radical young man who took on many high-profile yet controversial court cases. These included several slaves who were suing for their freedom (yes, the well-known slave owner actively fought to reduce slavery during the early days of his career).
It was at this time, however, that Jefferson wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America.
A Summary View was initially drafted as the instructions for Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress. As we have discussed before, the representative’s instructions were very important, as they were prohibited from taking action outside of their specifically outlined duties.
Jefferson’s essay claimed that Great Britain never had the authority to pass laws for the colonies. The American settlers paid their own way and built their own communities. The ties between the Mother Country and the colonies were based on little more than a mutual economic benefit.
Falling just a hare shy of calling for independence, the instructions were debated in the House of Burgesses and rejected for their radical attitude. The young man had been restrained by his veteran colleagues.
Then, Thomas Jefferson’s luck forever changed.
Some of his friends took his instructions, which were only ever meant as resolutions for the eyes of Burgess delegates, and published them.
Truthfully, it is questionable if Jefferson himself is even the one who came up with the title.
What is undeniable is that this essay was republished in several major cities throughout the colonies and even in England. It was celebrated by many of the radicals up and down the eastern seaboard.
Suddenly, this little-known member of the Virginia Provincial Assembly had established himself as a leading author of the Revolutionary Movement.
The Summary v. The Declaration
Two years later, having been selected for the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson sat at a table in Philadelphia and expanded his ideas of the colonies’ rights.
His next publication was easily the more famous…the Declaration of Independence.
It is really fascinating when reading A Summary View to pay attention to certain key words and turns of phrase that seem to reappear, albeit in updated fashion, in the Declaration.
For example, we see him discuss ‘the lives, the labours, and the fortunes’ as opposed to pledging ‘our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.’
Furthermore, we see that the ‘God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time’ which would grow to ‘they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
As you can see, In the two years that passed between both documents, Jefferson’s ideas were the same, but his words became more beautiful.
A Summary View, first written as instructions to his coworkers, ended up giving Thomas Jefferson a voice in the American Revolution.
It was this paper that brought him to the attention of the other radicals and made him known as a compelling author, a point which helped him land the job of writing the Declaration. Additionally, it helped him flush out the ideas which would create one of the most powerful pieces of writing in world history.
Without A Summary View, Jefferson may not have ever made it to the Continental Congress. He may not have ever written the Declaration of Independence. He may not have been President Washington’s Secretary of State or John Adams’ Vice President. He may never have been President himself.
We may very well live in a much different world.
While there are several wonderful biographies of Thomas Jefferson, I recommend everyone read ‘Friends Divided’ which can be found through the affiliate link below. This is the story of what is (in my opinion) the most important relationship in American History, that of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Gordon Wood is one of the premier revolutionary historians of all time and I simply cannot recommend this book enough.
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