Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – The greatest revolution among the 13 colonies was not the one that was taking place in Philadelphia in Independence Hall. It was actually taking place in Williamsburg. This was the erection of or the composition of the first state constitution that a free people, or people who had acquired freedom, had ever elected to, as their first act, to put together so that they could govern themselves, the Virginia Constitution of 1776. I happen to have one of the world’s foremost experts on the telephone with me right now. He can tell us all about it. Check out today’s transcript for the rest…
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Also going on at this time in 1776 — and this is unbeknownst to too many people, and I would also say, Kevin, unbeknownst to too many Virginians who do not know this. The greatest revolution among the 13 colonies was not the one that was taking place in Philadelphia in Independence Hall. It was actually taking place in Williamsburg. This was the erection of or the composition of the first state constitution that a free people, or people who had acquired freedom, had ever elected to, as their first act, to put together so that they could govern themselves, the Virginia Constitution of 1776. I happen to have one of the world’s foremost experts on the telephone with me right now. He can tell us all about it. What was going on about this June 19, 1776? Had they made it through Bill of Rights? Were they getting ready to put the final touches on? What were they doing in Virginia?
Kevin Gutzman: They had already agreed to a Declaration of Rights, which, by the three resolutions that were adopted by Virginia’s ruling convention on May 15, 1776 was going to be the predicate to republican constitution. Of course, Virginia’s constitution of 1776 was the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world. It was a brand-new experiment to have written constitutions. Virginia was going to lead off. Virginians, of course, thought of this as the reason why they were having the revolution. In fact, people think of Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence. He, in Philadelphia, was frantically writing back to Virginia saying: Please relieve me. Send somebody else up here to be a congressman. I want to come to Williamsburg and help write the constitution. To one fellow he wrote: If a bad constitution is adopted, it would have been better to adopt the bad one that was offered from across the water and avoid the military contest. He said this is the ground of the entire argument. This is what the revolution is about, in other words.
He drafted a constitution and sent it to political friends of his in Virginia. In fact, at one point, according to Edmund Randolph, who was a younger cousin of Jefferson’s, a very prominent politician himself, Randolph presented this to three of the leaders of the convention: Pendleton, George Mason, and Patrick Henry. They essentially said: Yeah, we’ve been working long enough. We don’t have time to take this whole thing up. They did end up tacking Jefferson’s preamble onto the state constitution that the convention adopted. The provisions Jefferson included in the body of his constitution, such as the one about landholding, I mentioned earlier, were omitted. The long series of accusations against George III that justified independence from Jefferson’s draft constitution ended up being the preamble to the Virginia Constitution.
Mike: If you’re wondering, there’s another, I guess we could call this an editor’s footnote. That is, while Jefferson’s work winds up in the Declaration, it’s also true that the brilliance of George Mason winds up in Jefferson’s Declaration, right?
Gutzman: Yes, that’s right. Of course, George Mason was the chairman of the committee in the Virginia Convention that drafted both the Declaration of Rights and the Constitution. Jefferson borrowed extensively from Virginia’s Declaration of Rights in drafting the American Declaration of Independence. Of course, one would have to say that Jefferson’s versions of provisions that he borrowed from Mason tended to be far more poetic. Mason was a clear draftsman, but Jefferson was a literary stylist. The wording isn’t exactly the same, but the ideas definitely are borrowed, some of them.
Mike: So while all this is going on in June of ’76, and as you mentioned, Jefferson is sitting there in Philadelphia begging for someone: Please, get me out of here! He has been charged basically with this task of crafting and writing this Declaration of Independency, as John Adams called it. He kept using that word “independency.” Franklin has gone off on some trek to Canada. Adams kept himself busy with everything in Congress. We have no evidence that Sherman or Livingston were ever involved in the process. This leaves us with TJ as working his way through what may or may not have been used by the Continental Congress. From your reading of Jefferson — I haven’t read as much as you have of him, especially around that time. Did you ever get the impression that he thought he was committing all this effort in vain, in writing the Declaration? Why am I here? They may not even use this stuff.
Gutzman: No, I’m not aware of that at all. Of course, the committee had been delegated the task of writing the Declaration. Surely the Congress was going to adopt a declaration, so there’s no reason to think they weren’t going to adopt something similar to what the committee reported back. One thing that people don’t recognize commonly is that, although we refer to Jefferson as the draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, the version that Congress ultimately adopted was not exactly the same as the committee reported. It had been amended in several particulars. Besides that, the version the committee reported was not the same that Jefferson drafted. There is a draft in Jefferson’s hand that has corrections in both John Adams’ and Ben Franklin’s hand. Those improved Jefferson’s wording.
Of course, historians generally agree that the Congress improved the committee’s version. Jefferson, on the other hand, thought that his had been perfect and lamented the changes that were made by other people ever after. In fact, he sent some of his political allies, who had not been in Congress when this was going on, copies both of what he had written and what Congress had done. He said essentially: See what you think of this. Some of them wrote back and said: Congress butchered your version. Of course, that was exactly what he wanted to hear. This was characteristic of Jefferson, who was quite the egoist.
Mike: We don’t often think of him, or many people don’t think of him as the egoist. One of the things that I found as I was going through — it’s funny how these doors open up when you’re researching history. Thanks to the technology available to us, and through, I guess, the hard work, although I hate to give credit to Google, but some Google-ites have gone through libraries across the United States and found every book ever written, it seems, in the 18th and 19th century. They’ve just sat there with digital scanner beds and scanned every page. Some things that wouldn’t have been available to historians in other eras are now available to us. For example, biographies of men that we wouldn’t classify as founding fathers, although they lived at the same time. Some of them wrote autobiographies. You can actually find them online. I don’t want to say they’re easy to find. They’re not easy to find, but they are very numerous.
I found some biographies of people that I was very tangentially aware of, Charles Biddle, for example, one of the men that signed the Declaration of Independence. I’m not aware that Mr. Biddle did much after that, and maybe he did, but he certainly felt he had done enough to write an autobiography. Buried in Biddle’s own memoirs is an account of what happened on July 4, 1776, which seems to have become, as with the passage of time, an issue with some people. John Adams’ recollection would be different than Thomas Jefferson’s.
I read a most fascinating exchange between Madison and Jefferson in this regard the other day. It says after TJ is apprised that Timothy Pickering is up in Massachusetts basically claiming in newspapers that he cut and pasted the Declaration and didn’t actually write any of it, Jefferson fires a letter off to Madison and encloses some kind of copy of a declaration. Have you read this exchange and have you seen the copy of the Declaration that he sent to little Jimmy Madison?
Gutzman: Yes, I have seen the exchange. This is the kind of thing that people like Jefferson spent a lot of time doing. If you go through the papers of John Adams or Jefferson or Madison or any of these people, you’ll see that they’re constantly correcting the record or being asked by people: Can you tell me what happened? I’m writing a biography of my grandfather and I want to know what you remember about him? Oh, your grandfather was the greatest thing since sliced bread, even if he didn’t like him or whatever. This was very common. No, I have not seen that copy of the Declaration.
Actually, let me say one other thing. The name Biddle is actually a very interesting name in American history. In the 1830s, of course, there was the famous confrontation between Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States. The president of the Bank of the United States was a fellow named Nicholas Biddle, who was a descendent of the same Biddle. Then, later, there was, in the Eisenhower administration, the attorney general of the United States was named Biddle. He was another descendent directly from Nicholas. Then people of a certain age may recall that in the 1970s there was a public scandal about a woman who came to be called the Mayflower Madam. The reason she was called the Mayflower Madame is because the Biddle family came to North America on the Mayflower in the first place. She was a Biddle, too. I guess you could say the Biddle family has either prominent or notorious through most of American history.
Mike: Fascinating stuff.
End Mike Church Show Transcript