Engaging Ideas at the Crossroads of Faith & Freedom

Thomas Jefferson on Debt

The current debt debate in the United States Congress—whether we should raise the debt ceiling, raise taxes, or cut spending—set me to thinking about what Thomas Jefferson would think about America’s $14.2 trillion debt. Why? Because he was a man who believed debt was not a blessing but a curse. And although personally he didn’t practice what he preached—he died deep in debt—Jefferson’s hypocrisy between his words and his wallet shouldn’t keep us from heeding his words of warning about the dangers of national debts.

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[We should] put off buying anything until we have the money to pay for it. (Letter to Dr. Currie, 1787)

As the doctrine is that a public debt is a public blessing, so they [the supporters of State debt assumption] think a perpetual one is a perpetual blessing and, therefore, wish to make it so large that we can never pay it off. (Letter to Nicholas Lewis, 1792)

It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which, if acted on, would save one-half the wars of the world. (Letter to Destutt Trace, 1820)

I am miserable till I shall owe not a shilling. (Letter to Nicholas Lewis, 1786)

What is to hinder [the government] from creating a perpetual debt? The laws of nature, I answer. The earth belongs to the living not to the dead The will and the power of man expire with his life, by nature’s law. . . . Each generation has the usufruct [the right to use another’s property] of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation, free and unincumbered, and so on, successively, from one generation to another forever. We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but not to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country. (Letter to John Wayles Eppes, 1813)

It is a miserable arithmetic which makes any single privation whatever so painful as a total privation of everything which must necessarily follow the living so far beyond our income. What is to extricate us I know not, whether law, or loss of credit. If the source of the former are corrupted, so as to prevent justice, the latter must supply its place, leave us possessed of our infamous gains, but prevent all future ones of the same character. (Letter to William Hay, 1787)

How happy a people were we during the war from the single circumstance that we could not run in debt. (Letter to Dr. Currie, 1787)

I place economy among the first and most important of republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared. (Letter to Governor Plumber, 1816)

I am for applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt. (Letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1799)

If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen to these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes; have no time to think, no means of calling the mismangers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves out to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-suffers. (Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816)

A debt of an hundred millions, growing by usurious interest, and an artificial paper phalanx, overruling the agricultural mass of our country have a portentous aspect. (Letter to Samuel Adams, 1800)

The growth and entailment of a public debt is an indication soliciting the employment of the pruning knife. (Letter to Spencer Roane, 1821)

No man is more ardently intent to see the public debt soon and sacredly paid off than I am. This exactly marks the difference between Colonel Hamilton’s view and mine, that I would wish the debt paid to-morrow; he wishes it never to be paid, but always to be a thing wherewith to corrupt and manage the Legislature. (Letter to George Washington, 1792)

There does not exist an engine so corruptive of the government and so demoralizing of the nation as a public debt. It will bring on us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad against whom this army and navy are to protect us. (Letter to Nathaniel Macon, 1821)

We are ruined if we do not overrule the principles that “the more we owe, the more prosperous we shall be”; “that a public debt furnishes the means of enterprise”; “that if ours should be once paid off, we should incur another by any means however extravagant.” (Letter to James Monroe, 1791)

The payment made in discharge of the principle and interest of the national debt, will show that the public faith has been exactly maintained. (First Annual Message to Congress, 1801)

To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. (Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816)

All quotations from The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, The University of Virginia,, (accessed August 2, 2011).


Do Not Mourn Me Dead: A Civil War Love Letter

Awaiting orders at Camp Clark, outside of Washington D.C., on July 14, 1861, a 32 year old Major in the Union Army’s Second Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers penned this letter to his wife, Sarah. Sensing that the battle to come would be his last, Sullivan Ballou encourage her with a final farewell as an enduring expression of love.

The following day, July 15, at the First Battle of Bull Run (the First Battle of Manassas) his horse was shot out from under him by a five-pound cannon ball.  Mortally wounded, he was taken to a field hospital where his leg was amputated. When the Union Army fled the field, Ballou was left behind. A week later, on July 28, as a prisoner of war, Sullivan Ballou succumbed to the infection in his wounds.

Sarah, and her two boys Edgar and Willie, probably received the letter a couple week after his death. Sarah allowed a local paper to publish the letter in the 1870s. The original letter no longer survives, but a few hand written copies exists—probably copied by Edgar and Willie and given to their fiancées as expression of their own affection for their beloveds.

Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his “very dear Sarah” is one of most beautiful love letters in the English language. Written during a time of great ugliness and death.

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My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more. Our movements may be of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle field for my Country, I am ready.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, when after haven eaten for long years the bitter fruits of orphanage myself, I must offer it as the only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and fondly in the breeze, underneath my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce, though useless contests with my love of Country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this clam Summer Sabbath night, when two-thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying perhaps the last sleep before that of death, while I am suspicious that death is creeping around me with his fatal dart, as I sit communing with God, my Country and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my heart for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have so often advocated before the people—another name of Honor that I love more than I fear death, has called upon me and I have obeyed.

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and burns me unresistably on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And here it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience, till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiness scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys—they will grow up as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long—and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dim memories of childhood. Sarah I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.

Tell my two Mothers I call God’s blessing upon them. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.

Looking for Someone to Blame? Congress is a Good Place to Start

On March 7, 1995, editorialist Charley Reese of the Orlando Sentinel penned an article that presents some of the most common sensical advice I’ve read in a long time. Though some of the examples are dated, and he gets some of the Constitutional obligations wrong, the sentiments in this editorial are just as relevant in 2011 as it were sixteen years ago. See if you don’t agree.

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Politicians, as I have often said, are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them.

Everything on the Republican contract is a problem created by Congress. Too much bureaucracy? Blame Congress. Too many rules? Blame Congress. Unjust tax laws? Congress wrote them. Out-of-control bureaucracy? Congress authorizes everything bureaucracies do. Americans dying in Third World rat holes on stupid U.N. missions? Congress allows it. The annual deficits? Congress votes for them. The $4 trillion plus debt? Congress created it.

To put it into perspective just remember that 100 percent of the power of the federal government comes from the U.S. Constitution. If it’s not in the Constitution, it’s not authorized.

Then read your Constitution. All 100 percent of the power of the federal government is invested solely in 545 individual human beings. That’s all. Of 260 million Americans, only 545 of them wield 100 percent of the power of the federal government.

That’s 435 members of the U.S. House, 100 senators, one president and nine Supreme Court justices. Anything involving government that is wrong is 100 percent their fault.

I exclude the vice president because constitutionally he has no power except to preside over the Senate and to vote only in the case of a tie. I exclude the Federal Reserve because Congress created it and all its power is power Congress delegated to it and could withdraw anytime it chooses to do so. In fact, all the power exercised by the 3 million or so other federal employees is power delegated from the 545.

All bureaucracies are created by Congress or by executive order of the president. All are financed and staffed by Congress. All enforce laws passed by Congress. All operate under procedures authorized by Congress. That’s why all complaints and protests should be properly directed at Congress, not at the individual agencies.

You don’t like the IRS? Go see Congress. You think the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agency is running amok? Go see Congress. Congress is the originator of all government problems and is also the only remedy available. That’s why, of course, politicians go to such extraordinary lengths and employ world-class sophistry to make you think they are not responsible. Anytime a congressman pretends to be outraged by something a federal bureaucrat does, he is in fact engaging in one big massive con job. No federal employee can act at all except to enforce laws passed by Congress and to employ procedures authorized by Congress either explicitly or implicitly.

Partisans on both sides like to blame presidents for deficits, but all deficits are congressional deficits. The president may, by custom, recommend a budget, but it carries no legal weight. Only Congress is authorized by the Constitution to authorize and appropriate and to levy taxes. That’s what the federal budget consists of: expenditures authorized, funds appropriated and taxes levied.

Both Democrats and Republicans mislead the public. For 40 years Democrats had majorities and could have at any time balanced the budget if they had chosen to do so. Republicans now have majorities and could, if they choose, pass a balanced budget this year. Every president, Democrat or Republican, could have vetoed appropriations bills that did not make up a balanced budget. Every president could have recommended a balanced budget. None has done either.

We have annual deficits and a huge federal debt because that’s what majorities in Congress and presidents in the White House wanted. We have troops in various Third World rat holes because Congress and the president want them there.

Don’t be conned. Don’t let them escape responsibility. We simply have to sort through 260 million people until we find 545 who will act responsibly.

Charley Reese, “Looking for Someone to Blame? Congress is a Good Place to Start,” March 7, 1995, Orlando Sentinel, (accessed July 19, 2011).

In Quest of a Hero

In the eternal depths of the human soul lies a mystery as ancient as time. From the memorial dawn of mankind we have quested to understand this mystery through story and myth—a quest from which we cannot turn, for the mystery rests uneasy in the recesses of the spirit and beckons us “come.” 

Compelled, we obey.

And though inexplicable, we perceive the mythological calling of the quest as an echo of a higher calling, a greater calling.

It is the call and quest for a hero.

The greater and higher calling does not beckon us to quest for enlightenment, liberty, or renown—of battles fought with the strength of arms against giants, monsters, and dragons. Rather, this calling beckons us to quest for a person—a hero who fought to victory our battles in ages past against the hater of the human spirit. In conquering the hordes of hell this hero won back body and soul from the slavery of damnation.

Our response to mystery’s call is a response to eternity’s call: “Come, follow the Hero of our soul—Jesus Christ.” His story is the true voice from which all other hero stories echo. Whether we speak of Greek or Roman myths, Norse legends, or Native American tails, the hero story as many elements in common, including these examples:

  • The hero’s mother is a royal virgin
  • The hero is reputed to be the son of a god
  • An attempt is made on the hero’s life, so he is spirited away and reared in a far country
  • We are told nothing of his childhood
  • On reaching manhood, he returns to his kingdom and eventually becomes king
  • He loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects
  • He meets with a mysterious death, often on the top of a hill [1]

The hero myths of Perseus, Theseus, or Hercules foreshadowed the Hero’s story. And this is as it should be, for the Christ story was written into the very poetry of the Greeks by the Author of heroism. This is the higher and greater quest, not a search for heroic myths but a search for heroic reality—the reality of the spirit. By His resurrection Jesus Christ trumped all other heroes. His story reminds us that all heroes, whether mythological or historical, are but shadows of the Hero. And those who answer the call and go in quest for this Hero prove, once again, that God has indeed penned eternity on the human heart. Once found, these questers will not be disappointed for the Hero will rescue body and soul . . . from now until eternity.

[1] Lord Raglan, “The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama, Part II,” in In Quest of the Hero (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), 138.

Speeches that Made History: Calvin Coolidge Reminds Us of the Declaration’s Inspiration

Calvin Coolidge became President of the United States just a few years into the Harding–Coolidge administration. While vacationing at his father’s farm, in Plymouth, Vermont, Coolidge received word that President Harding died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923. In the early morning of August 3, a knock came on John Coolidge’s door. Mr. Coolidge called his son and the Vice President appeared at the top of the stairs. Told of the President’s death, Coolidge reportedly said about assuming the presidency: “I believe I can swing it.” Robert Sobel, picks up the story:

Coolidge and his wife returned to the bedroom. They washed, dressed, and knelt by the bed to pray. Then they went downstairs, where Coolidge dictated a message of sympathy to Mrs. Harding. . . .

Coolidge received a telegram from Attorney General Daugherty urging him to take the oath of office immediately. He went across the street to the general store and telephoned Secretary of State Hughes, who informed him, the oath could be administered by a notary. Coolidge told Hughes his father was a notary, and the Secretary replied, “Fine.” Coolidge returned home, and in the downstairs sitting room John Coolidge, using the family Bible, swore his son in as [the thirtieth] president. The time was 2:47 am. [1]

President Coolidge rooted out the corruption left by the Harding Administration and planted the seed of the “Coolidge prosperity” in the roaring twenties. In 1924 he was elected to the presidency in his own right. While vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where he dedicated Mt. Rushmore, Coolidge declined to run in 1928. In his typical laconic style, Coolidge declared: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”

Coolidge is the first and only president born on the Fourth of July and sworn in by his father. He was the last president to shake hands for hours with citizens visiting the White House; the last to rely exclusively on written letters and telegraphs to carry out the duties of the office (the one White House telephone was outside the Oval Office in a little booth); and the last to have only one secretary and no aides.

Not given to bombast, Coolidge used words economically. But when he did speak his words carried weight. As a speaker, Coolidge was not a rhetorician or an orator. He was a logician—argument based upon argument, drawing to the obvious conclusion. On the 150 anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, delivered on July 5, 1926, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Coolidge traced the inspiration of our founding document. His conclusion was simple and profound, especially in this day of multiculturalism and pluralism: “the Declaration of Independence . . . is the product of the spiritual insight of the people.”

The speech is worth reading in the whole, but here is a flavor of Coolidge’s tribute to the spiritual beginnings of America and to our Declaration of Independence. Enjoy. Happy Fourth of July. And God bless America!

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It is little wonder that people at home and abroad consider Independence Hall as hallowed ground and revere the Liberty Bell as a sacred relic. That pile of bricks and mortar, that mass of metal, might appear to the uninstructed as only the outgrown meeting place and the shattered bell of a former time, useless now because of more modern conveniences, but to those who know they have become consecrated by the use which men have made of them. They have long been identified with a great cause. They are the framework of a spiritual event. The world looks upon them, because of their associations of one hundred and fifty years ago, as it looks upon the Holy Land because of what took place there nineteen hundred years ago. Through the use for a righteous purpose they have become sanctified. . . .

The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possess the courage to dare to maintain them. . . .

It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history. Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over the length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite proposition where set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed. . . .

A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man—these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause. . . .

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to the great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers. . . .

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped. [2]

[1] Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1998), 232.

[2] Calvin Coolidge, “The Inspiration of the Declaration of Independence,” July 5, 1926, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,, accessed July 3, 2011.

Founding Fathers Friday: Thomas Jefferson

He was the most enigmatic and accomplished of all the Founders. Only Benjamin Franklin comes close, and even then not close enough. Historian Joseph Ellis called him the “American Sphinx.” To John Adams: “His talents were of the highest order, his ambition transcendent, and his disposition to intrigue irrepressible.”

Thomas Jefferson was a rolling mass of contradiction and achievement. He was:

  • A slave owner who worked to abolish slavery in Virginia and who laid the blame for colonial slavery at the feet of the British Crown in the draft version of the Declaration of Independence . . . yet never freed all of his slaves
  • A man who believed that blacks were inferior to whites . . . yet fathered at least one child, if not more, by his slave-mistress Sally Hemings
  • A politician who feared public debt would ruin the republic . . . yet left personal debts so staggering his family had to auction off slaves and property to settle them after his death
  • A lover of agriculture and simplicity, a farmer at heart . . . yet enthralled by all thing mechanical , complex, and Parisian
  • A small government philosopher . . . yet a large government practitioner (Louisiana Purchase)
  • A man painfully shy . . . yet publicly ambitious
  • A gifted penman . . . yet an ungifted orator
  • A peaceful and retiring man . . . yet a revolutionary

Jefferson was an inventor (the first swivel chair, a multi-book carousel for reading, and a duplicating machine for writing), a scientist (experimenting in agriculture and meteorology), an entrepreneur (a nail production business), a musician (played the violin), a political philosopher (author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Notes on the State of Virginia), a diplomat (an ambassador to France and the first Secretary of State), a practical politician (a representative in the House of Burgesses, Congressman, Governor, Vice President, and President), and an educator (the father of the University of Virginia). And these are just a few of Jefferson’s achievements. In short, he was a visionary thinker, builder, and leader.

Because Jefferson’s contradictions are so striking and his accomplishments so vast, we’ll focus on what he considered his greatest achievement: drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson was born and raised on his father’s plantation, Shadwell, in what is now Albemarle County, Virginia. When his father died, in Jefferson’s teen years, the young man inherited a sizable estate and numerous slaves. He received an excellent education at the College of William and Mary and was tutored in the law by George Wythe, to whom Jefferson praised: “No man ever left behind him a character more venerated than George Wythe.”

In 1768, when Jefferson was twenty-five years old, he began construction on his mountaintop home, Monticello, not far from his boyhood home. He wouldn’t finish the design, building, and rebuilding of the home until after his presidency in 1809. In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a young widow of twenty-three, who brought a dowry of additional wealth and slaves. Jefferson and Martha lived a life of bliss for ten years, until her death in 1782. They had six children, but only two lived passed infancy: Martha and Mary, whom they called “Polly.”

Jefferson was thin, tall, athletic, red-headed, and intelligent. Elected to the Continental Congress in 1775 and arriving in May 1776, he was immediately recognized as a powerful and fluid penman. As the debate over independence heated, Jefferson was selected as a member of the Committee of Five, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee’s charge was the creation of a declaration of independence. Livingston, a New Yorker was on the committee to calm the jitters of the New York fence-sitters; he and Sherman contributed little to the document. Richard Henry Lee, who presented the resolution of independence and a fine penman in his own right, wasn’t selected as a committee member or draftsman of the declaration because he had too many political enemies in Congress; Jefferson had few enemies and was Lee’s superior in wielding the pen. So Lee was out and Jefferson was in.

Jefferson was thirty-three years old when he retired to his second floor boarding room on Market Street in Philadelphia and began sharpening and dipping his quills. But Jefferson believed he was the wrong man for the task—John Adams should write the document. Adams was, in his own words to Benjamin Rush, “at least ten years older than [Jefferson] in age and more than twenty years older than him in politics.” Jefferson “was but a boy to me,” Adams confided. Adams, however, knew Jefferson was the right man. In a letter to Thomas Pickering, written a few years before his death, Adams recounted the exchange with Jefferson about who should author the Declaration:

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 subcommittee met, Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught.

Adams: I will not.

Jefferson: You should do it.

Adams: Oh! no.

Jefferson: Why will you not? You ought to do it.

Adams: I will not.

Jefferson: Why?

Adams: Reasons enough.

Jefferson: What can be your reasons?

Adams: Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business [as the largest and most influential colony]. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.

Jefferson: Well if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.

Adams: Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.

Jefferson indeed gave his best. The Declaration Jefferson penned was, in the words of John Quincy Adams, a document that “stands for ever, a light of admonition to the rulers of men, a light of salvation and redemption to the oppressed . . . [the delineation of] the boundaries of their respective rights and duties, founded in the laws of nature, and of nature’s God.”

Jefferson knew the Declaration would be read aloud in public squares, in homes, and in front of the American troops, so he crafted more than a piece of statecraft—he fashioned an oration, paying special attention to the cadence and sound of the words. (In one early surviving draft Jefferson placed markers above the words to analyze the rhythm of his sentences.)

Jefferson never claimed the Declaration was original; it wasn’t an expression of his mind. Rather, it was an “expression of the American mind.” British philosopher John Locke and Virginia’s own George Mason served as Jefferson’s inspiration. In fact, the famous phrase “all men are created equal” was a paraphrase of Mason’s phrasing in the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “all men are born equally free and independent.” But as with any public statement coming from the pen of a politician, it was edited and debated over. Adams and Franklin made the most significant edits, and Franklin most of all. Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin edited this sentence into the punchy one we know today: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Once Franklin and Adams were done, the Declaration was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776, just days before the scheduled vote.

Once independence was declared on July 2, Congress laid into Jefferson’s Declaration. For two hot, humid, and horsefly infested days—Jefferson said “the horseflies were dexterous in finding necks, and the silk of stocking was as nothing to them”—Congress debated and argued over every sentence, phrase, and word. For Jefferson, it was torture. On July 4, after some eighty-six changes to Jefferson’s and the committee’s edited document, Congress agreed on the language. President John Hancock and Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson signed the final draft. Then off to the printer the Declaration went. Legend says Jefferson accompanied the document and proofed every copy as it came off the press.

After the triumph of composing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson went on to serve America as ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President of the United States. He retired to Monticello in 1809, designed the buildings and campus of and founded the University of Virginia, and renewed his strained friendship with John Adams, who wrote Jefferson in 1813: “You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.”

The Adams–Jefferson correspondence lasted until their deaths on July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

In his bedroom at Monticello, Jefferson lay dying. On the third of July, 1826, he inquired as to the day of the month. When told, he expressed his desire to survive until the next day, “to breathe the air of the fiftieth anniversary of his country’s independence” as one biographer put it. On the fourth, after having expressed his gratitude to his friends and servants for their care, he said: “I resign myself to my God, and my child [Martha Randolph] to my country.” And the voice and pen of Thomas Jefferson was silent.

Just before he died, Jefferson handed Martha a morocco case, with a request that she not open it until his passing. The case contained a poetical tribute to her virtues and an epitaph for his tomb. He wanted a simple and small granite obelisk with this inscription:

Here was buried


Author of the Declaration of Independence,

Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom,

And Father of the University of Virginia.

The presidency to Jefferson, as he explained to John Dickinson in 1807, “brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends” and he didn’t want his memory tied to it.

Thomas Jefferson, in the words of an 1848 biography of the signers, was “In religion a freethinking; in morals, pure and unspotted; in politics, patriotic, honest, ardent and benevolent. . . . His life was devoted to his country; the result of his acts whatever it may be, is a legacy to mankind.”

And no greater legacy could be claimed by any American than that of author of the Declaration of Independence. That one achievement is an “everlasting monument to his memory, and gives, by far, a wider range to the fame of his talents and patriotism, than eloquent panegyric or sculptured epitaph.”

Though he be dead, he still speaks.

Founding Fathers Friday: George Wythe

Contrary to popular myth, and the joking of Benjamin Franklin that “we must . . . all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” not a single signer of the Declaration of Independence ever had his neck stretched or was targeted for retribution by the British. A few were captured and spent time in prison because they just happened to fall into the hands of the British—all were later released. And a few had property stolen or damaged, which probably would have occurred simply due to the nature of have a war fought on their front lawn. But none were killed by British soldiers or loyalist neighbors. In truth, the British army had bigger game to bag than a gaggle of dandies committing treason with their quills. The British were hunting those committing treason with their guns—George Washington and his (literal) rag-tag rabble, known as the Continental Army. And though history is rarely less exciting than legend, in this case it is so.

This is not to say, however, that intrigue and history don’t shake hands in the lives of the signers. Two signers did die through violent means—just not at the hands of the British. Button Gwinnett died in a duel with a political rival. And George Wythe was murdered by a close relative.

Wythe (pronounced “with”), like his Virginian brethren, was the son of a wealthy planter. His father died when he was a child of three. His mother, Mary Walker Wythe, was, for that day, unusually well educated. She was proficient in Latin and in the study of the classics. And she taught young Wythe both. While in his teens, Wythe studied law with an uncle. He passed the bar at twenty. But sometime before his twenty-first birthday, his mother passed away. A large fortune fell into his lap. Freed from parental control and money to burn the young man succumbed to what the old King James called “riotous living” (Luke 15:13). According to one biographer, “His character not having become fixed, he launched out upon the dangerous sea of pleasure and dissipation, and for ten years of the morning of his life he laid aside study and sought only personal gratification.”

But something happened when Wythe was about thirty—something now lost to history. He suddenly grew serious and threw himself into the practice of law. He was conscientious and honest to the nth degree. And such scrupulousness won him a post as an attorney general within the royal legal system, a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1754, and a gavel as the mayor of Williamsburg.

While in Williamsburg, Wythe also became a professor of law at the College of William and Mary (earning him the distinction as the first law professor in the United States). During his tenure as a professor (and after his retirement) he taught and mentored such notables as James Monroe (future President of the United States), John Marshall (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and Henry Clay (future Senator and Secretary of State). But Wythe’s most famous accolade was Thomas Jefferson. The two men formed a fast and enduing friendship that lasted until Wythe’s death. Of his friend and mentor, Jefferson said that Wythe was “my faithful and beloved mentor in youth and my most affectionate friend through life”; he was “my ancient master, my earliest and best friend” . . . “my second father.”

Like most colonists, whether Yankee or Southerner, Wythe was a loyal subject of the king. But the Stamp Act of 1765 changed all that. The House of Burgesses asked him to write a reply to Parliament. But the document he produced was so scathing the House feared it might lead to an open breach with the crown, so watered it down before accepting it.

In 1774, Wythe was sent to the First Continental Congress and served until just after the vote for independence in 1776. According to Benjamin Rush, “He seldom spoke in Congress, but when he did, his speeches were sensible, correct and pertinent. I have seldom known a man possess more modesty or more dovelike simplicity and gentleness of manner.” But Rush was quick to added that Wythe was “a profound lawyer.” Indeed he was.

Wythe was the first delegate to suggest that America should become a separate, equal, but loyal nation within the British Empire (much like Canada and Australia today). Along with Richard Henry Lee, Wythe also laid the colonies’ troubles at the foot of the throne (not Parliament), arguing that as king and sovereign over his subjects, George III was responsible for righting the wrongs done to them. And if the king spurned his people’s pleas, then America had a legal right to break away from Great Britain and declare herself independent.

When it became all but inevitable that America must declare her independence, Wythe was also the first to argue for formal alliances with other nations to aid her in her plight.

Ironically, Wythe wasn’t in Philadelphia on July 2, 1776, to cast his vote for independence. Nor was he in the city on August 2 to sign the document his protégé crafted. For years historians assumed that Wythe signed sometime in the fall of 1776, when he returned to Philadelphia, but recent scholarship questions whether he signed the Declaration at all—that he had a clerk or secretary sign for him. The theory is based on the difference of how Wythe typically signed his name—“G. Wythe”—and how it appears on the Declaration—“George Wythe.” However, the hypothesis hasn’t received wide acceptance in the historical community. For one thing, there appears to be little or no difference, other than the complete spelling of Wythe’s first name, in the shape of the lettering. And second, it stands to reason that Wythe might forego his “everyday” signature and choose to include his full name on such an important document.

In any case, Wythe left Congress in 1776 and returned to Virginia to help Jefferson establish a new constitution for the state, which Wyth drafted. He also designed the state’s seal. In 1777, he was elected as Speaker of the House of Burgesses. And in the same year, was elevated to the bench as one of three judges to the state’s highest court. In 1787, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and later in the Virginia ratifying convention. Upon ratification, Wythe was elected to the United States Senate and served two terms.

An ardent lover of the classics and education, Wythe established a free school that was open to anyone who wished to learn. He also became an ardent abolitionist. When his second wife died he freed his slaves—a radical thing to do in colonial Virginia—but felt a moral obligation to their welfare. Two of his former slaves stayed with and cared for him in his old age: Lydia Braodnax, his housekeeper, and Michael Brown, a young man Wythe was tutoring in the classics. Such affection existed between Wythe and these two former slaves he included them in his will.

Wythe had no children of his own, so the majority of his inheritance would fall to his grandnephew and namesake, George Wythe Sweeney—the nineteen-year-old grandson of Wythe’s sister. Sweeney was a troubled youth who drank and gambled. Wythe thought he could mold the boy into something—after all, he had had his own rebellion as a youth—so Sweeney came to live with Wythe, Braodnax, and Brown.

Sweeney knew Wythe’s will stipulated that if Broadnax and Brown died before his great-uncle passed away he would inherit the entire estate. One morning Sweeney made a pot of coffee. Broadnax saw him drink from the pot, throw a piece of paper into the fire, and leave the house. Later that morning, the entire household drank from the same pot, and all became violently ill. Broadnax recovered, but Brown died and Wythe lingered with severe stomach cramps for weeks. Investigators, with the aid of Broadnax, pieced together what happened. Sweeney put arsenic into the pot then burned the wrapping paper used to hold the drug.

Wythe lasted two weeks before he died in terrible agony. But before his death, Wythe, suspecting his nephew poisoned him out of greed, ordered officials to search Sweeney’s room for poison and altered his will by cutting Swenney out entirely. On June 8, 1806, Wythe cried, “I am murdered” and breathed his last.

Sweeney was caught and charged with the murder of Wythe and Brown, and with forging his uncle’s name on some checks. But in a twist of historic and unjust irony, Broadnax’s damning testimony was thrown out as inadmissible because at the time blacks couldn’t testify against white men. Sweeney was convicted of forgery but acquitted of the murders. Later he appealed the forgery charge and the prosecutors declined to pursue the case. Sweeney was a free man—on a technicality and an unjust law—and walked off the pages of history.

It would be an injustice to this honorable man to end his story with the release of his murderer, however. So a much more fitting ending is this one provided by an early biographer:

Mr. Wythe was a man of great perseverance and industry, king and benevolent to the utmost; was strict in his integrity, sincere in every word, faithful in every trust; and his life presents a striking example of the force of good resolution triumphing over the seductions of pleasure and vice, and the attainments which persevering and virtuous toil will bring to the practician of these necessary ingredients for the establishment of an honorable reputation, and in the labors of a useful life.

And a useful life it was—honorable and honoring. We would do well to emulate it.