In the summer of 1774, 31-year-old Thomas Jefferson worked hurriedly in his house at Monticello. The weather was sunny and clear, but he was worried about the storm clouds he and other continental leaders saw coming. He was a representative of Albemarle County in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the document he was writing now he hoped would be shared with the Continental Congress later that year. It would be called, The Summary View of the Rights of British America.”
Earlier in 1774, the British Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts, the latest set of legislation in a buildup of heavy taxes and governmental oversight by the Motherland. Jefferson was a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia that had decided to boycott English goods being imported into the commonwealth in response to these acts. The House of Burgesses also decided to enact a Day of Fasting and Prayer. It was after this Day of Fasting and Prayer that Jefferson took to writing this document he now labored over.
“…our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, …” Jefferson wrote in The Summary View.
He had argued this natural right to freedom among his own people on behalf of a slave, and it had fallen on deaf ears. What made him think King George III would care any more than a Virginian judge?
He wasn’t just arguing a case for someone else’s freedom. He was using terms and language that could be viewed at treasonous. Jefferson was married, with two young children. He ran a successful plantation in Virginia. He was respected and liked by many, which Jefferson wanted more than anything. But this idea of boycotting and denouncing laws given by London was still a radical concept to many. The British government could take away everything he had. It was his freedom at stake.
“… their Saxon ancestors had, under this universal law, in like manner left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe, had possessed themselves of the island of Britain, then less charged with inhabitants, and had established there the system of laws which has so long been the glory and protection of that country.” Jefferson wrote in The Summary View.
Jefferson couldn’t be silent any longer. He felt a great desire to help shape the future of his land and commonwealth, even at a young age. Nine years earlier he heard a passionate speech by Patrick Henry, an eloquent, Virginian lawyer and representative in the House of Burgesses. He felt then that England needed to allow local representation, but still nothing had changed.
“No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right…” Jefferson wrote in The Summary View, directing the appeal to King George III.
Jefferson would conclude by saying they weren’t looking to separate from Great Britain, but they wouldn’t be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but their own.
When he was satisfied with the article, he made a second copy and left for Williamsburg to deliver it to Peyton Randolph and Patrick Henry. He got sick with dysentery along the way, and had his servant deliver it for him.
How could he have known what weight his words would have in shaping the thoughts and feelings of his fellow colonists? Not only was it read by the intended recipients, it was printed and distributed by Clementina Rind across New England and even in London. The Summary View of the Rights of British America was Jefferson’s first substantial published article, and gave him notoriety throughout the colonies, and set the stage for his leadership in the revolution as well as the third president of the United States.
Jefferson was a highly impactful man in the history of our country. He influenced more than 36 years of presidency in the early years of our country.
We know how it turned out now, but you have to remember that he didn’t know that in 1774. He was born to lead, as the eldest son of a southern planter in slavery times. He would have influence over hundreds of people on his own plantation, but he was still self-conscious and thin-skinned at times. He wanted the praise of his fellow man, but what caused him to risk everything on a treasonous paper like the Summary View?
He believed in himself and what he believed was right. Even though he didn’t know how the revolution would turn out, or even if it would happen, he wanted change.
He believed he could help make a difference.
He believed he had a message that would resonate with others, and he needed to share it.
What do you want to accomplish? What is your Summary View that you are willing to share with the world? If you don’t, who will?