Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), third President of the United States (1801–09), was a gifted lawyer, scholar and politician, who valued political liberty and religious freedom. One of the Committee of Five appointed in June 1776, Jefferson was commissioned to draft the justifications for separation from the tyranny of the British Crown. His draft was submitted to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and, after a number of changes had been made, the final version of the American Declaration of Independence was ratified on 4 July 1776.
The Declaration drew inspiration from Magna Carta and the defence of English liberties transmitted to the American colonies in the works of Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634) and Henry Care (1646–88). The values of Magna Carta had been emulated in the many charters which each state and commonwealth had composed since their 17th-century foundations. For the colonies, Magna Carta was a fundamental law and a living document, and was regarded as a defence of both individual freedoms and constitutional government. The original Declaration had reinforced this legacy by drawing up a list of complaints against the tyranny of George III, ‘For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world; For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent; For depriving us of the benefits of Trial by Jury’. The grievances were complemented by the assertion of natural rights to self-government and resistance by an independent state.
This item is one of the two surviving intact copies of the Declaration made by Jefferson in the days immediately after it had been accepted by the Continental Congress. In this copy, Jefferson underlined passages, such as the long denunciation of the slave trade, to identify where Congress had made significant deletions from and amendments to his original text. It is noteworthy that the phrase, ‘for tyranny over a people fostered and fixed in principles of freedom’, was also omitted.