Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

The Continental Congress

On a pleasant June day in 1775, Thomas Jefferson took his seat in Congress.

The room occupied by this wise and honorable body of men was small for the sixty gentlemen who were to discuss and decide such important matters. Carpenters' Hall, as the building in Philadelphia was called, was the property of the Society of Carpenters, a plain brick structure to which the gentlemen made their way up a narrow alley, probably at the risk of their buckled shoes and silk stockings.

As Jefferson went along the street, he overtook an elderly gentleman walking somewhat slowly with a younger one beside him. Hearing footsteps, the old man turned and thumped his walking-stick upon the walk.

"Thomas Jefferson! Well, well, sir! How do the times deal with you?"

Jefferson fell into step, his face full of pleased surprise. "Dr. Franklin! This is indeed a happy chance, sir!"

Benjamin Franklin turned to his younger companion.

"Mr. Jefferson should know Mr. Thomas Stone, of Maryland," he said smilingly. "You two are members of the younger generation in Congress, about the same in years, I fancy. There are but a few of us gray-heads among you—but enough to hold the hotheads in check, I hope!" He laughed heartily. "Here we are! There's John Jay—another youngster—in the doorway, with Edward Rutledge, a baby of but twenty-six, so they say. Isn't that Mr. Henry just behind us, Mr. Jefferson?"

"I believe so, Dr. Franklin. He and Mr. Lee and Mr. John Adams are just turning the corner there."

The three paused in the doorway, where a general handshaking and bowing took place. Much attention was shown the young member from Virginia who, as Benjamin Franklin whispered to John Dickinson, was "a very marvel of learning, sir. They tell me he can plan a building; explain a knotty point of law; tie a cut artery as well as a surgeon; read Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and what not; play the fiddle like a concert master, and—well, sir, I know not how much else. A marvel, sir; a most learned young man!"

But it was not only the reputation of the young Virginian for learning that made him welcome. His manner was pleasant, modest and easy and, like Benjamin Franklin himself, he was never apt to disagree, but always willing to learn from the experience of those with whom he talked.

That afternoon a dusty messenger came spurring into Philadelphia, his horse, with staring eyeballs and foaming mouth, straining forward toward the little brick building where the Congress met. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry stood in the doorway as he flung himself to the ground and rushed up the steps.

"A battle! A battle, gentlemen!" he gasped. "I bring a message for the Congress! Make way!"

Members hurried to crowd about him as he leaned breathlessly against the door frame.

"The British regulars were sent reeling down Breed's Hill twice!" he gasped. "Twice, sirs! Our men clubbed their guns when their powder gave out! Oh, sirs, a defeat—but the most glorious defeat! Over a thousand red-coats dead or wounded! Thirteen of the King's officers killed, and seventy wounded! And now they're helpless—general, army and all, in Boston!"

Excitement flushed every cheek. A battle! Raw colonial troops had sent the British reeling down the hill again and again! Thirteen officers; over a thousand dead! It was almost too much to believe. Why, the King's troops were trained and seasoned veterans; the Americans untrained. Oh, but it was stunning, glorious, amazing news!

A burst of enthusiasm drowned the messenger's words as he sank into a seat.

The tidings were indeed a shock to the Congress, especially to those like John Dickinson, who could not bear the thought of separation from Great Britain. To others, who saw in the battles of Lexington and Bunker, or Breed's Hill the dawn of the revolution, it came like the sound of the trumpet that calls the war horse to battle.

The pen of Thomas Jefferson was soon busy, for Congress wished that an explanation of the reasons for taking up arms should be published to the world, so that none should misjudge the colonies. A committee for this had already been appointed, and to this were added the names of Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson.

Jefferson, whose fame as a writer was now widespread, was asked by the others to draw up this paper, so that General Washington might make it public when he arrived at the camp before Boston. He did so, but his language was so strong and bold that some members thought the ideas too far in advance for the more timid among the people who still hoped to make friends with the Mother Country.

"Let John Dickinson write it," suggested one. "He's a man of great ability, but he'd rather cut off his hand than write anything that would make a war between us and Britain a necessity!"

"A good idea! If we take the words of the most backward among us—"

"Why, Congress will not then be in danger of moving too fast for the mass of the people. Yes; let John Dickinson write the paper."

So good John Dickinson, who loved England still with all his heart, in spite of all that had happened, wrote the explanation, setting forth in very careful language the wishes of the colonies. Some words and phrases of Thomas Jefferson's paper were probably included in this, but just how much nobody seems to know.

At any rate, the explanation was accepted, by Congress, read everywhere, and greeted with cheers and even the salute of artillery.

But another opportunity came to Thomas Jefferson before long. He had brought to the Congress Virginia's reply, which he had written for its House of Burgesses, to the new plan of Lord North, the man who now headed the King's ministry, for the taxing of the colonies. This reply so pleased the Congress that Jefferson was asked to write their own answer to Lord North. The young member from Virginia was equal to the task, and his pen produced another of those honest, eloquent and earnest appeals that had already made a name for him.

The sixty gentlemen of the Congress made this answer their own. It was one of the last acts of this session of Congress, for on the first day of August it adjourned to meet again in the fall.

The session over, Thomas Jefferson and his friend Benjamin Harrison drove homeward to Virginia, an eight-day journey, while Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton and Richard Henry Lee closely followed them. They all made what speed they could, these young Virginia Congressmen, for in the little Church of St. John, in Richmond, another convention was anxiously waiting for them and their news of the acts of Congress.

Virginia was now wide awake to the dangers of the time. War, she saw, was even now raising its bloody head above the horizon. In preparation for its coming, the little convention was examining samples of saltpetre for the making of gunpowder, and appointing colonels of the regiments that the colony would send into the field. The services of Patrick Henry to Virginia had not been forgotten. He was made colonel of the very first regiment of all. To Jefferson came the honor of re-election to Congress.

Thomas Jefferson drove happily home to Monticello, his mind full of the stirring affairs of the day, his heart, of thoughts of the dear ones waiting there for him. In the chaise, packed carefully so that no jolt should injure it, was a wonderful fiddle—one he had for years longed to have and which he had bought at last from John Randolph. Fast trotted the horses along the well-known road, as Thomas Jefferson, fiddler and Congressman, sped toward home.