Thomas Jefferson: The Sensitive Writer Type

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Let's get a few things straight about writing the Declaration of Independence. First of all, it wasn't the founding fathers' top priority. By early 1776, America had pretty much broken up with King George, but since it was a long-distance relationship, the nation felt the need to make it official on paper. Second, getting to write it wasn't really an honor. Thomas Jefferson was the newbie and, at 33, the second-youngest guy in Congress. And because the elder statesmen had more important things to do, like forging alliances with France and Spain, Jefferson got the job because no one else wanted it.

Regardless, Jefferson poured his heart and soul into the document. He spent days holed up in a second-story Philadelphia apartment, scratching away with his quill. And in that time, the sensitive, fiery redhead grew deeply attached to every sentence. After the manuscript hit the floor of Congress for debate, Jefferson slumped in his chair and sulked as his colleagues argued over it. They only cut about one-quarter of his words, but Jefferson felt they'd "mangled" his baby.

Among the edits were some of the more serious passages, like a section that dealt with the evils of slavery. But Congress jefferson-grave.jpgalso cut out much of the melodrama. Jefferson wrote of the British, "Manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them." Harsh, no? Typical break-up letter material, but harsh.

Jefferson remained bitter about Congress' edits for years, but his ego eventually healed. By the end of his life, he was taking measures to ensure that "Author of the Declaration of American Independence" would be engraved on his tombstone.

Thomas Jefferson's (Somewhat Unorthodox) Pursuit of Happiness

For Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness often meant breaking the rules.

His Five-Finger Discount: While serving as ambassador to France, Jefferson discovered that Italian rice was tastier than American rice. Always looking for ways to improve U.S. agriculture, Jefferson figured he'd just cross the Alps to pick some up. Easier said than done. The Italians wanted to protect their crop from foreign competition, so taking rice out of the country was punishable by death. Instead of heeding the law, a cavalier Jefferson stuffed his pockets with the grains and then hired a mule-driver to smuggle two sacks of the stuff into France. He then brought the rice back to the United States, where it's still grown today.

His Slacker Style: When Jefferson became president, he never wanted to be confused as a king. He wouldn't let visitors bow to him, and thereby inadvertently began the custom of presidential handshakes. Further, dinner at the White House was always an informal affair, and Jefferson often showed up sweating in his riding clothes. Stranger still, when a British minister once paid him a visit at the White House, the casual president simply answered the door in his pajamas.

Jenny Drapkin is the Senior Editor of mental_floss magazine. This concludes our serialization of "All The Presidents' Secrets," her fantastic feature from the September-October 2007 issue. (Would you care to subscribe?)

Previous Installments: Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Calvin Coolidge, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt.

April 24, 2008 - 3:08am
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