To Timothy Pickering

John Adams

August 06, 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 slavery.

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,

John Adams

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org