If you’re looking for a brief explanation of this series, go to this link here.
The Stamp Act wasn’t the last attempt by the British government to exert power and influence of its highly lucrative colonies in the Americas. And, as those efforts intensified in the late-1760s and early-1770s, a number of Americans rose up to sound the alarm.
Chief among them was a fiery orator from Virginia named Patrick Henry; you know, the “Give me liberty…” guy. He was a member of the American gentry, bred of fine, upstanding stock, who had a penchant — and indisputable skill — for rabble rousing.
He passed the Virginia Bar at age 24, and at age 27 took on perhaps one of the biggest court cases in colonial Virginia history: the Parson’s Cause. He argued, during the penalty phase of the civil trial, the King of England had no right to countermand the will of the People as expressed by their elected representatives.
There’s no word on where he would stand on many of President Obama’s actions over the past three years, but I digress. After “winning” a case no attorney twice his age would even attempt, he had already become a new hero of the fledgling American liberty movement.
He soon was elected to the House of Burgesses, where he continued to champion individual liberty. And, he exhibited a willingness to cross the line of treasonous speech when he spoke out in opposition to the Stamp Act, and subsequently avoided calls for his hanging with his aforementioned oratory skills.
From that point forward, however, Patrick Henry was deeply entrenched in ever political act that led to the American Revolution.
His now-famous “Give me liberty…” speech was made in March of 1775 in the House of Burgesses, wherein he urged the people of Virginia to take up arms against the British government. And, when the governor removed gunpowder from the colonial magazine to prevent such a move, Henry mobilized a militia to force the governor to restore those supplies.
And, in May of 1776, it was a no-brainer that Patrick Henry would be among the Who’s Who of the American Revolution who arrived in Colonial Williamsburg for the Virginia Convention. His influence can be seen in nearly every word of The Virginia Resolution, which can only be described as the first pangs of labor pain leading to the birth of our nation.
He wasn’t the only Virginian to play an important role in birth of the United States.
Those well versed on the subject will quickly compile a rather impressive list: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Edmund Randolph. But the list would certainly be incomplete if you did not include George Mason. The author of the Virginia Bill of Rights rarely gets the credit he deserves for advancing the principles of limited government in the American version of republican self-governance.
The Fifth Virginia Convention set the tone for the debates to be held a month later in Philadelphia, but more importantly, it set the stage for a new form of governance in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As a prelude to writing the constitution — not as an afterthought as had been the case historically both before and after — those in attendance hoped to establish a framework of inalienable rights that government could not violate.
It also would become the framework Thomas Jefferson would use to outline the American colonies’ just desire to be free and independent of the British government, and it would even later be the basis for James Madison’s Bill of Rights amendments to the U.S. Constitution. So, through this gathering in Williamsburg, American liberty — its own signature version of civil liberty — was born.
It’s unfortunate that many history books today do not adequately establish that the United States of America had been in a de facto state of war with its parent government in England for more than a year before the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. Knowing this piece of historical fact helps the students to better understand the environment in which the delegates worked.
That a declaration of independence would come out of the gathering was nearly a foregone conclusion. Virginia had already announced its independence and formed its own government. How such a declaration would be phrased, however, was of utmost interest throughout the colonies.
Enter young, timid Thomas Jefferson.
As a student, he had sat in on Patrick Henry’s defiant rant against the Stamp Act, and was inspired by the fellow patriot’s words, which inspired him to form his own ideas about self-governance in the New World. But, he was actually an alternate delegate to the convention, sent to Philadelphia when it was apparent Payton Randolph, Speaker of the Virginia House, would be recalled by the colonial governor.
So, before he left for Philadelphia, he penned his ideas on self-governance into a document called “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” It was an overnight sensation — as much as such a document could be in those days — and Jefferson’s newfound fame actually beat him to Philadelphia, assisted by an illness that befell him on the way.
When Thomas Jefferson finally arrived in Philadelphia, he was a late-18th century rock star.
The 33-year-old Virginian was quickly placed on the committee tasked with drafting the declaration, a committee which included John Adams. The committee then tasked Jefferson to be the sole author of the document.
Sequestered for 18 days in mid- to late-June, Jefferson penned the most powerful document in U.S. history, then quickly departed for Monticello, where his wife and two of his children had fallen ill. Adams and Benjamin Franklin offered a couple of minor tweaks to the draft declaration before it went to the Continental Congress as a whole for ratification.
The rest is, as they say, history.
Later, Jefferson was quoted as saying that when he set about to write the Declaration of Independence, he was attempting to place before the whole of mankind the “common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.” In other words, he wasn’t trying to create new ideas or rationales.
Rather, he was stating the obvious — or what should have been obvious to any British subject — if you’ve been following the previous installments of this series. And, perhaps, that’s what makes American liberty so very special — it’s a natural progression from its very foundation, unadulterated in every way.
If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine.