The History Book Club discussion

PRESIDENTIAL SERIES > 3. AMERICAN SPHINX ~ CHAPTER 1 (54 - 74) (02/15/10 - 02/21/10) ~ No spoilers, please

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message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44126 comments Mod
Hello Everyone,

This begins the third week's reading in our new Presidential Series group discussion.

The complete table of contents is as follows:

Prologue. Jefferson Surge: America, 1992-1993 p.3
1. Philadelphia:1775-76 p.27
2. Paris: 1784-89 p.75
3. Monticello: 1794-97 p.139
4. Washington, D.C.: 1801-1804 p.200
5. Monticello: 1816-1826 p.273
Epilogue. The Future of an Illusion p.349
Appendix. A Note on the Sally Hemings Scandals p.363

The assignment for this week includes the following segments/pages:

Week Three - February 15th - February 21st ->1. Philadelphia:1775-76 p.54 - 74 - Texts and Contexts - American Creed, American Dream - Escape

We look forward to your participation; but remember this is a non spoiler thread.

We will open up threads for each week's reading. Please make sure to post in the particular thread dedicated to those specific chapters and page numbers to avoid spoilers.

This book was kicked off on February 1st. This will be the third week's assignment for this book.

We look forward to your participation. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other noted on line booksellers do have copies of the book and shipment can be expedited. The book can also be obtained easily at your local library, or on your Kindle.

A special welcome to those who will be newcomers to this discussion and thank you to those who have actively contributed on the previous Presidential Series selection. We are glad to have you all.



Here also is the syllabus:

American Sphinx The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis Joseph J. Ellis Joseph J. Ellis

message 2: by Joe (last edited Feb 14, 2010 07:59PM) (new)

Joe (blues) Since the words in the Declaration of Independence are "the most potent and consequential in American history," during most of this week's discussion, I will be focusing almost exclusively on it and it's history. Certainly, most of my posts below can be replicated at the History Book Club's thread dedicated to the Declaration, but it can not be denied that this discussion is also valid here. This event was not only one of the most important in Thomas Jefferson's life, but also in the life our Country. We all could certainly agree that it can hardly be equaled.

To establish a clearer picture of the events surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Ellis states "that neither Jefferson nor any other of the participants foresaw the historical significance of what they were doing at the time. What's more, within the context of Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, the writing of the Declaration of Independence did not seem nearly so important as other priorities, including the constitution-making of the states and the prospect of foreign alliances with France or Spain. The sense of history we bring to the subject did not exist for those making it." pg 54

Also very significant is Ellis' question: How or why was Jefferson selected to draft the Declaration? "The short answer is that he was the obvious choice on the basis of his past work in the Congress as a draftsman. That was his specialty." Also, the longer answer given by Ellis is very telling. "A Virginian presence on the committee (to draft the Declaration) was essential, and Jefferson was the most appropriate, both because of his reputation as a writer and because Lee, the other choice, was the author of the resolution before Congress and presumably would lead the debate in its behalf." The committee, consisting of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Robert Sherman delegated the drafting to Adams and Jefferson. Ellis continues saying, " one at the time regarded the drafting of the Declaration as a major responsibility or honor. Adams, like Lee, would be needed to lead the debate on the floor. That was considered the critical arena. Jefferson was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence, then, in great part because the other eligible authors had more important things to do." pg 57-58

In conclusion, it appears to me that Jefferson was selected to write the Declaration because the older, more respected, and ones who considered themselves better able Congressmen had more important duties in mind. I am convinced that John Adams would have decided to write the Declaration himself if he could have foreseen the importance of the moment and additional accolades it's author was bestowed by history. And Jefferson certainly would have submitted to Adam's decision, in my understanding of these events. During that time, Jefferson was a new member of Congress, and I have yet not forgotten Ellis' reference to John Adam's thoughts with regard to Thomas Jefferson. "Though only eight years older than Jefferson, Adams claimed that he initially regarded him as a son." pg 52 John Adams, and not Thomas Jefferson, would have authored the Declaration of Independence if the Congressman at the time understood the significance of what they were doing. Who knows if this is indeed the case, but it's fascinating hypothesis.

message 3: by Joe (new)

Joe (blues) The Declaration of Independence - Chronology of Events

June 7
Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, receives Richard Henry Lee's resolution urging Congress to declare independence.

June 11
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston appointed to a committee to draft a declaration of independence. American army retreats to Lake Champlain from Canada.

June 12-27
Jefferson, at the request of the committee, drafts a declaration, of which only a fragment exists. Jefferson's clean, or "fair" copy, the "original Rough draught," is reviewed by the committee. Both documents are in the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress.

June 28
A fair copy of the committee draft of the Declaration of Independence is read in Congress.

July 1-4
Congress debates and revises the Declaration of Independence.

July 2
Congress declares independence as the British fleet and army arrive at New York.

July 4
Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence in the morning of a bright, sunny, but cool Philadelphia day. John Dunlap prints the Declaration of Independence. These prints are now called "Dunlap Broadsides." Twenty-four copies are known to exist, two of which are in the Library of Congress. One of these was Washington's personal copy.

July 5
John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, dispatches the first of Dunlap's broadsides of the Declaration of Independence to the legislatures of New Jersey and Delaware.

July 6
Pennsylvania Evening Post of July 6 prints the first newspaper rendition of the Declaration of Independence.

July 8
The first public reading of the Declaration is in Philadelphia.

July 9
Washington orders that the Declaration of Independence be read before the American army in New York

July 19
Congress orders the Declaration of Independence engrossed (officially inscribed) and signed by members.

August 2
Delegates begin to sign engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence. A large British reinforcement arrives at New York after being repelled at Charleston, S.C.

January 18, 1777
Congress, now sitting in Baltimore, Maryland, orders that signed copies of the Declaration of Independence printed by Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore be sent to the states.


message 4: by Joe (new)

Joe (blues) Richard Henry Lee's resolution urging Congress to declare independence
June 7, 1776

The Lee Resolution, also known as the resolution of independence, was an act of the Second Continental Congress declaring the Thirteen Colonies to be independent of the British Empire. First proposed on June 7, 1776, by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, after receiving instructions from the Virginia Convention and its President, Edmund Pendleton (in fact Lee used, almost verbatim, the language from the instructions in his resolution). Voting on the resolution was delayed for several weeks while support for independence was consolidated. On June 11, a Committee of Five was appointed to prepare a document to explain the reasons for independence. The resolution was finally approved on July 2, 1776. The text of the document formally announcing this action, the United States Declaration of Independence, was approved on July 4.

Lee's Resolution of Independence:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.


message 5: by Joe (new)

Joe (blues) The Declaration of Independence

The original rough draught of the Declaration of Independence, one of the great milestones in American history, shows the evolution of the text from the initial "fair copy" draft by Thomas Jefferson to the final text adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776. Also, you can compare 3 different versions of the text here:

The first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence were produced from Jefferson's rough drafts by the printing shop of John Dunlap, who was the official printer of the Congress at the time. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, ordered Dunlap to print broadside copies of the declaration on the evening of July 4, 1776. Dunlap printed perhaps 200 broadsides, since known as the Dunlap broadsides, which were the first published versions of the Declaration.

Below is a picture of a Dunlap Broadside copy of the Declaration of Independence held at the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was approved by the thirteen colonies and on July 19 the Continental Congress ordered that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic:] of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." Timothy Matlack, a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress, and as a clerk to the Secretary, was tasked with engrossing the official Declaration of Independance which was signed by the Continental Congress and now rests on display in the National Archives.

The parchment paper used to create the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence measured 24½ inches wide by 29¾ inches tall. Below is a modern picture of the origional Declaration of Independance on display in the National Archives.

It was in Baltimore, after the victories at Princeton and Trenton, that the second printing of the Declaration was undertaken, this time with the names of the signers. The Mary Katherine Goddard's Printing, the Goddard Broadside, was the second printed version of the United States Declaration of Independence to be distributed by the Second Continental Congress and the first to include the names of the signatories.

After the War of 1812, the symbolic stature of the Declaration steadily increased even though the engrossed copy's ink was noticeably fading. In 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned printer William J. Stone to create an engraving essentially identical to the engrossed copy. Boyd called this copy the "fifth official version" of the Declaration. Stone's engraving was made using a wet-ink transfer process, where the surface of the document was moistened, and some of the original ink transferred to the surface of a copper plate, which was then etched so that copies could be run off the plate on a press. When Stone finished his engraving in 1823, Congress ordered 200 copies to be printed on parchment. Because of poor conservation of the engrossed copy through the 19th century, Stone's engraving, rather than the original, has become the basis of most modern reproductions.

Print of the Declaration of Independence made in 1976 for the nation's 200th anniversary from Stone's engraving.


The Declaration of Independence can be downloaded to your digital ebook readers in epub and mobipocket formats, or read online.

The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Jefferson

message 6: by Joe (new)

Joe (blues) What's on the Back of the Declaration of Independence?

The movie National Treasure suggests that something is written on the back of the Declaration of Independence. As protectors of this important, original document, we know there is nothing hidden there. But it is true that something is written on its back. See for yourself...

The writing on the back of the Declaration of Independence reads:

"Original Declaration of Independence
dated 4th July 1776"

and it appears on the bottom of the document, upside down. While no one knows for certain who wrote it, it is known that early in its life, the large parchment document (it measures 29¾ inches by 24½ inches) was rolled up for storage. So, it is likely that the notation was added simply as a label. The writing that appears at the bottom in this view is actually ink from the top of the front side that has seeped through the parchment to the back of the document.


message 7: by Joe (last edited Feb 15, 2010 12:11PM) (new)

Joe (blues) I thought that this was quite interesting, and pertinent to this week's discussion here at the Presidential Series with the Declaration of Independence being the focus.

A move to strike ‘all men’ from N.H. State constitution
Some say it’s time to make document gender-neutral

message 8: by Joe (last edited Feb 16, 2010 05:53AM) (new)

Joe (blues) Examining Thomas Jefferson's Sources

Historians have often sought to identify the sources that most influenced the words of the Declaration of Independence. By Jefferson's own admission, the Declaration contained no original ideas, but was instead a statement of sentiments widely shared by supporters of the American Revolution. As he explained in 1825:

"Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion." - Thomas Jefferson 1825

Jefferson's most immediate sources were two documents written in June 1776: his own draft of the preamble of the Constitution of Virginia, and George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Ideas and phrases from both of these documents appear in the Declaration of Independence. They were in turn directly influenced by the 1689 English Declaration of Rights, which formally ended the reign of King James II. During the American Revolution, Jefferson and other Americans looked to the English Declaration of Rights as a model of how to end the reign of an unjust king. English political theorist John Locke is usually cited as a primary influence on the Declaration. As historian Carl L. Becker wrote in 1922, "Most Americans had absorbed Locke's works as a kind of political gospel; and the Declaration, in its form, in its phraseology, follows closely certain sentences in Locke's second treatise on government." The extent of Locke's influence on the American Revolution was questioned by some subsequent scholars, however, who emphasized the influence of republicanism rather than Locke's classical liberalism. Historian Garry Wills argued that Jefferson was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly Francis Hutcheson, rather than Locke, an interpretation that has been strongly criticized. The Scottish Declaration of Arbroath (1320) and the Dutch Act of Abjuration (1581) have also been offered as models for Jefferson's Declaration, but these arguments have been disputed.

Thomas Jefferson had with him two documents when he drafted the Declaration of Independence: The Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been drafted a few weeks before by George Mason and his own draft of the preamble to Virginia's constitution, which used the British declaration as a model.

Jefferson's Sources:
The Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason

Jefferson's own draft of the preamble to Virginia's constitution

Also, it is thought that Jefferson, like most Americans, were influenced by John Locke's "Two Treatises of Government"
Two Treatises of Government by John Locke

John Locke Two Treatises of Government (Everyman's Library) by John Locke by John Locke

The British Declaration (Bill) of Rights, 1689
Used as a model on how to end the reign of an unjust king.

What are the similarities and what are the differences between Jefferson's sources and the Declaration of Independence?


message 9: by Joe (last edited Feb 18, 2010 05:57AM) (new)

Joe (blues) Recommended reading on the Declaration of Independence

"The Declaration of Independence: A History"
from the National Archives.

"The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence" by Stephen E. Lucas
from the National Archives.

"The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence" by Jack N. Rakove

The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence by Jack N. Rakove by Jack N. Rakove

Also, "Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence" by Goodreads author Joseph D'Agnese. On the reverse side of this book's cover is a replica of the Declaration of Independence. I really have enjoyed the book myself. It comes highly recommended.

Signing Their Lives Away The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence by Joseph D'Agnese by Joseph D'Agnese

Also, the National Archives website:

message 10: by Joe (last edited Feb 16, 2010 05:51AM) (new)

Joe (blues) John Trumbull's “Declaration of Independence”

The painting is often described as the "Signing of the Declaration of Independence", but this is an error. The painting actually shows the five-man drafting committee presenting their draft, an event that took place on June 28, 1776, and not the signing of the document, which took place later.

The painting shows 42 of the 56 signers of the Declaration; Trumbull originally intended to include all 56 signers, but was unable to obtain likenesses for all of them. He also decided to depict several participants in the debate who did not sign the document, including John Dickinson, who declined to sign. Because the Declaration was debated and signed over a period of time when membership in Congress changed, the men in the painting had never all been in the same room at the same time.

Thomas Jefferson seems to be stepping on the foot of John Adams in the painting, which many think is supposed to symbolize their relationship as political enemies. However, upon closer examination of the painting, it can be seen that their feet are merely close together. This part of the image was correctly depicted on the two-dollar bill version.

An interactive image which shows who is who:


message 11: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44126 comments Mod
I do love this painting by Trumbull even though his history was incorrect...or maybe he was just trying to make the painting look more asymmetrical. Including John Dickinson was interesting but he was very respected at the time.

Yes very true..they came and went and were never altogether. Hard to believe you could ever try to initiate and start a government that way but they did.

Thank you so much for including this..wonderful addition.

message 12: by Viviane (new)

Viviane Crystal | 22 comments Thanks for all the above information. I was struck in this chapter by the author's "interpretation" of Jefferson's behavior. Re his idealism, inability to debate, and disgust with the political process as well as his egotism re changes in his own writing, this strikes me more as interpretation than fact (the reasons for all the above, that is). Some of it even strikes me (idealistic view of utopian society) as a reach, despite any background influences. Building Monticello and having ideas re a new government equal wishing for a utopian society? Hmmm, not sure I buy this at all. Still, the remaining parts of the chapter were fascinating/

message 13: by Joe (last edited Feb 18, 2010 05:59AM) (new)

Joe (blues) Viviane wrote: "Thanks for all the above information. I was struck in this chapter by the author's "interpretation" of Jefferson's behavior. Re his idealism, inability to debate, and disgust with the political p..."

Your welcome. I have never really spent any considerable time with the Declaration of Independence, so I thought that now was the most opportune time. And thank-you for your comments, Viviane.

You are so right. History is written by interpreting what little information we have, even if that information is not very credible. Also, it is written "by the winners," which I'm sure everyone has heard. And the conclusions Ellis has made are up for interpretation. That's why we are here, to talk about all of the ambiguities.

Jefferson is a very conflicting, complicated, and therefore, an extremely interesting study. I've been doing a lot of poking around and trying to better understand him, looking at numerous other books and sources and also anticipating everyone's comments here. There is a lot of material out there on Jefferson!

And, thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

message 14: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Craig I agree with Viviane, I feel Ellis does reach where the record does not exist. I think in part it is a personal thing with me; I tend to be more conservative about speculation. However, it is because of Ellis' psycho-history that turned off some historians and Monticello staff members when it came out.

But he does make interesting points that I have not thought of or forgot about. For example, I never saw the mansion as an escape for Jefferson, but when I think about it, I think it is true. His love really was science, farming, reading, and family, and all of it was on the mountain. Also, I thought he built the house on top of the mountain because of the outstanding views, but that is my speculation, so I shouldn't gripe too much ;-)

message 15: by Virginia (new)

Virginia (va-BBoomer) | 210 comments I appreciate Ellis' psycho-history as part of the history of the time and the story of the featured person. We can agree or disagree with the speculation and the psychoanalysis presented, but the information is there, added to the overall picture.

message 16: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments Virginia, I agree - the book is really about the mind of Jefferson and trying to understand why he did what he did at certain times in his life. I'm enjoying this type of approach very much.

message 17: by Karol (new)

Karol I found this section of the book quite interesting - I was surprised to learn that the writing of the Declaration of Independence was not considered to be a very important task at the time, at least not compared to getting various state constitutions written and adopted.

The debate over what influenced Jefferson's thinking is interesting, but I agree with the author that it is not all that relevant. Clearly, the Declaration reflects Jefferson's own thinking . . . The author suggests (and I tend to agree) "Though indebted to Locke, Jefferson's political vision was more radical than liberal, driven as it was by a youthful romanticism unwilling to negotiate its standards with an imperfect world . . . Jefferson provided a sanction for youthful hopes and illusions, planted squarely in what turned out to be the founding document of the American republic."

Of interest to me also, was that Jefferson could rise to such prominence without having a thick skin. Certainly, he was devoted to the cause of American independence as evidenced by his reluctant decision to stay and see things through until Richard Henry Lee could return in September of 1776 - this despite what anyone would consider a pressing need to return home (his wife's health and miscarriage). But he had his share of people who criticized and demeaned him, and that truly got under his skin.

message 18: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Craig Kay, I'm always surprised to see politicians with thin skins. Clinton has one. It sometimes comes out to the public, but I guess the trick is to keep it private, fume to aides and friends.

TJ had plenty of friends probably to vent with over these issues. He did fight the VA state house's inquiry about cowardliness during the British invasion as he escaped west. That charge bothered him most of his life.

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