John Adams to Timothy Pickering
August 6, 1822
You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed
at the head of the Committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence,
I answer; It was the Frankfort advice, to place a Virginian at the head
of every thing. Mr. Richard Henry Lee, might be gone to Virginia, to his
sick family, for aught I know, but that was not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's
appointment. There were three committees appointed at the same time. One
for the Declaration of Independence, another for preparing articles of
Confederation, and a other for preparing a treaty to be proposed to France.
Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Of Confederation, and it was not
thought convenient that the same person should be upon both. Mr. Jefferson
came into Congress, in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for
literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his
were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression.
Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit,
and decisive upon committees and in conversation, not even Samuel Adams
was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion
I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others.
I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the
head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me
the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed
Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draught, I suppose because we were the
two first on the list.
The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make
the draught I said, "l will not." "You should do it." "Oh! no." "Why will
you not? You ought do it." "I will not." "Why?" "Reasons enough." "What
can be your reasons?" "Reason first--You are a Virginian, and a Virginian
ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second--I am obnoxious,
suspected, and unpopular. You are much otherwise. Reason third--You
can write ten times better than I can." "WelI," said Jefferson, "if you
are decided, I will do as well as I can." "Very well. When you have
drawn it up, we will have a meeting."
A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over.
I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which
it abounded, especially that concerning negro slavery, which, though I
knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly
never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have
inserted, if I had drawn it, particularly that which called the King a
tyrant. I thought this too personal. I never believed George to be a tyrant
in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his
courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity only,
cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding,
for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to
inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out.
I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested
a single alteration.
We reported it the committee of five. It was read, and
I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticized any thing. We were
all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported,
as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting as he first drew it. Congress
cut off about a quarter of it, as I expected the would; but they obliterated
some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if any thing
in it was. I have long wondered that the original draught has not been
published. I suppose the reason is, the vehement phillipic against negro
As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but
what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance
of it is contained in the Declaration
of Rights and the Violations of those Rights in the Journals of Congress,
in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet,
voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress
met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals,
and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.
Your friend and humble servant,