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home : opinions : op ed columnist May 3, 2016

7/2/2014 10:55:00 AM
Jefferson's 'Death of a thousand cuts'
Gary Meinert
Gary Meinert

Thomas Jefferson sat stoically in the Philadelphia State House. These were the first few days of July, 1776, and Jefferson was suffering the “death of a thousand cuts.” The Continental Congress was editing a document he authored; “The birth certificate of United States,” better known as the Declaration of Independence. Even today historians are in agreement that 10 words which were cut in the editing process should have remained for the betterment of the document. I think the readers will concur but, we will discuss those 10 beautiful words later.

Throughout the history of mankind, freedom as we know it has been an anomaly. The people were told power began at the top from kings and queens and trickled downward, and their rights emanated from the monarchies and could be terminated on a whim. Our founding fathers, after years of imperial British rule were determined to assert their view that just the opposite was true; their rights came not from kings or queens but from God, and the power was put in the hands of leaders at the will of the governed. 

The abuses of King George III had been escalating so rapidly that Jefferson took up his pen in 1774 and wrote a short essay, “The Rights of British America,” hoping the monarchy would show restraint. He urged the King to understand that sovereignty was the purview of the people and not the government. But the oppression, encroachments and usurpations continued unabated. The tinder was dry and the flint and steel were at hand. The fire of independence would soon be burning in their bellies.

The 13 colonies that came together for the Continental Congress each had their own concerns and agendas. They came from different backgrounds, religions, political views, types of commerce and even differing views of the Monarchy. It’s hard to imagine how daunting the task was to agree or concede to the varying agendas. But somehow even with the controversial issue of slavery they succeeded in forming tenuous but general consensus. 

At 33 years of age Jefferson came to the Congress in June of 1775 with an expertise in composition but became the author of the Declaration of Independence only by a strange series of events, the most significant was the “Frankfort Advice.” 

On the evening of the Continental Congress there was a meeting in the town of Frankfort, Penn., between two delegations. The Pennsylvanian delegates were concerned their counterparts from Massachusetts might unnecessarily upset some other delegations in Congress. Massachusetts’ delegates were adamant and vocal in declaring independence from the British while other delegations were much more reluctant. The Pennsylvanians convinced the delegates from Massachusetts not to broach the subject of independence and let the Virginians assume leadership in the discussion. The tactic worked and Virginia was charged to assemble the three primary committees with Virginians as chairman: Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the proposed treaty to France. This was appropriate since Virginia was the largest and wealthiest of the 13 colonies. Jefferson, a Virginian, was chosen to head the committee on the Declaration of Independence. 

John Adams later wrote of the meeting:

“This was plain dealing ... and there appeared so much wisdom and good sense in it, that it made a deep impression on my mind … without it, Mr. Washington would never have commanded our armies; nor Mr. Jefferson have been the author of the Declaration of Independence; nor Mr. Richard Henry Lee the mover of it; nor Mr. Chase the mover of foreign connections … you inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed on the head of the committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence?” I answer: It was the Frankfort Advice.

Jefferson was without question a cold and somber man. And, he exhibited those traits in his harsh criticism of the British Monarchy as seen in the following example: “He has plundered our seas, ravished our coasts, burnt our towns … He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the work of death, desolation and tyranny …” 

However, he reserved some of his harshest criticism for the English people themselves ... “our British brethren … for allowing their king and Parliament to send over to America not only soldiers of our own blood but foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy us.” “These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us renounce forever … our old friends and brothers … We must endeavor to forget our former love for them.” These words were well beyond what the delegates could accept so much of it was edited. 

Before the editing process was completed the delegates had made more than 80 changes and removed more than a quarter from Jefferson’s masterpiece. But, if Jefferson’s cold heart could be broken it was the editing of the 10 most beautiful words he had written. Apparently in retrospect and reviewing his harsh words for the English people he felt a rush of melancholy which cried out for the 10 beautifully simple words: “We might have been a free and great people together.”

Without any explanation I could find, those 10 beautiful words were also inexplicably edited from Jefferson’s masterpiece.

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