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For this July 4th weekend, as we begin to approach 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, we take a look at the the group of the five delegates from five colonies—John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia—selected to write and edit this important document; known as the Committee of Five.

 

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

Olivia Brown: On August 6, 1822, John Adams wrote a letter to Timothy Pickering responding to Pickering's question as to why such a young man as Thomas Jefferson was selected to draft the Declaration of Independence. Adams recalled a conversation he had with the 33-year-old Jefferson, in which they argued about who would write the first draft. Adams presented his case, saying, "Reason first. You are a Virginian, and Virginia ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second. I'm obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third. You can write ten times better than I can."

 Jefferson had no rebuttal and told Adams he would do "as well as I can," and "as well as I can" turned out to be a beacon for liberty, freedom, and democracy around the world. As we approach the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States in 2026, we at Mountaintop History have decided to shed a little light on the group of five men selected to write and edit this important document; known as the Committee of Five.

 There was much debate over the idea of independence during the American Revolution, and Americans did not unanimously agree that they should leave the British Empire. These disagreements were on full display throughout the Second Continental Congress, a series of meetings that took place in Philadelphia between delegates from all thirteen colonies. During these meetings, the delegates debated how the colonies should move forward in terms of their relationship with Britain. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved that resolution should be made for independence. In response, the Continental Congress established three committees to help the American Patriots move forward with the business that would ultimately lead to the creation of the United States of America. There was a committee to prepare Articles of Confederation, which would govern the new country; a committee to prepare a Model Treaty for establishing foreign alliances, like with France; and finally, a committee to write a Declaration of Independence from Britain and King George III. The last committee consisted of five delegates from five different colonies: John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.

Despite his later recollections about this time, Adams first asked Benjamin Franklin to write the document. Franklin declined not only because he had been suffering from a severe case of gout, but also because he held an aversion to writing anything that would be edited by a committee. Thus, Thomas Jefferson was selected to create the rough draft and put his writing, rather than Franklin's, at the mercy of many editors.

The five men met several times to discuss the ideas that should be included and the way the document should be organized. The Declaration of Independence is most well-known for its resounding support of natural human rights, specifically the words, "all men are created equal," but the Committee of Five chose to also include a list of specific grievances held against the British King.

 Over a 17-day period, Jefferson spent hours in the parlor of a rented residence in Philadelphia, drafting the Declaration of Independence until it was at a point where his fellow committee members could edit and revise the words before sending them to the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson acknowledged, however, that the ideas he was writing were not new. He was influenced by works like Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense; George Mason's work on the Virginia Declaration of Rights; and John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. Jefferson said that the goal of the Declaration of Independence was, "not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent."

Standing among his four compatriots, Thomas Jefferson and the Committee of Five presented the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress on June 28, 1776. Delegates debated and discussed, mostly scrutinizing the second portion of the declaration that listed the specific injustices of King George III. Each colony had their own grievances and opinions about the oppression of the British government, and eventually included issues like taxation without representation, a denial of trial by jury, and an unlawful quartering of troops. Issues all later protected in the American Constitution.

Lee's resolution for independence of the "United Colonies," as he called them, was passed after significant debate on July 2, 1776, and its text officially ratified two days later. John Adams, who played a crucial role in the Committee of Five and the overall drafting of the official document, wrote to his wife Abigail, saying, "The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha in the history of America," adding, "It will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival... it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore."

To this day, Independence Day is celebrated across the United States with the fanfare of fireworks; however, unfortunately for John Adams, instead of celebrating on July 2, Americans have celebrated on July 4 for almost 250 years.

 This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.

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