Thomas Jefferson: The Making of America

“We Hold These Truths”


To the task of composing the American Declaration of Independence from England, Benjamin Franklin, the internationally respected senior member of the Continental Congress, quickly declined, stating, “I make it a policy never to write documents subject to editing by others.” John Adams, the seasoned and experienced politician, was then called upon. Adam’s said, “There are three reasons why I should not accept this honor: first, I am disliked and obnoxious, so the document would lack credibility; second, it should be written by a Virginian; and third, Thomas Jefferson is ten times a better writer than I.” The daunting task then came to the 33 year old Jefferson, who composed the draft in 1776 over a 17 day period in a hotel room in Philadelphia. Among the activities which helped focus and inspire his mind and words during this period was music – the playing of his violin.


“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…”

“Among these rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Tenor (singing, then repeating with Soprano):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the persuit of Happiness… We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” 

Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, with edits by Franklin and Adams

Artist: John Trumbull, Oil on canvas, 12’ x 18’, Commissioned in 1817 and placed in the Rotunda in 1826. Delivering the Declaration to Congress

“Time Wastes Too Fast”

     Martha Jefferson                                           Thomas Jefferson


Having authored the American Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was thrust into the forefront of political life, serving as a member of the House of Burgesses, and being elected Governor of Virginia. But even with this outward success, he continually sought to convince everyone, including his closest friends and himself, that his true desire was to spend the rest of his days at Monticello, and to take his place in society as a Virginia Gentleman Farmer with his beloved wife and family.

Thomas met his wife during one of his treasured afternoon strolls while working as a lawyer in Williamsburg. Struck by beautiful singing and harpsichord playing coming through an open window, young Thomas, having his small, pocket violin ever ready for a serenade, began to accompany this music with both his violin and voice from outside the window. This first duet between Martha Skelton and Thomas Jefferson was merely the beginning of an intense romance that would develop into true love and loyalty for years to come. They were married on New Year’s Day in 1772 and then set out for Jefferson’s hill top home he named Monticello, meaning “little hill” in Italian. Reaching Monticello in a snowstorm after dark, the couple toasted their new house with a leftover bottle of wine and, as Thomas recalls, “with song, merriment and laughter.”

Within the following ten years, Martha and Thomas had six children. Sadly, though, only two of their children survived childbirth – Martha, nicknamed Patsy, and Maria, nicknamed Polly – and only Martha would survive both her parents. The strain of frequent pregnancies eventually weakened his wife so gravely that Thomas curtailed his political activities to stay near her. As a result of Mrs. Jefferson’s last pregnancy and birth, she became gravely ill and remained bedridden for four months. Throughout her sickness, Thomas never left her side.

Laurence Sterne was one of Thomas and Martha’s favorite popular authors, and his book, Tristram Shandy, included a poem that they both loved and often shared together. As his wife lay dying in September 1782, unable to speak, struggling, she copied these lines from Tristram Shandy to Thomas:

 Original note shared between Martha and Thomas

Soprano (speaking):

“Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads, like clouds of a windy day never to return…”


Martha then collapsed, not able to reach the finishing point of the poem. Thomas took up her pen and completed the words:

Tenor (speaking):

“…and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to the eternal separation which we are shortly to make!”

Soprano (singing):

“Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return…”

Tenor and Soprano (singing):

“…and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to the eternal separation which we are shortly to make!”


Jefferson collapsed at Martha’s death; his sister, Martha Carr, instructed slaves to carry him, half-fainting with grief, to his room. It was three or four weeks before he stepped out of his room. After he finally left his sickbed, he began to roam the grounds of Monticello, sometimes on horseback, but more often on foot with his 9 year old daughter Martha as his only companion. In these rambles, his daughter recalled, “I was his constant companion, a witness to many a violent outbursts of grief.” He burned all of his wife’s letters and papers except one, the poem that they penned together on her deathbed. For the remainder of his life, Jefferson kept this paper close to him, with a lock of his wife’s hair entwined around it.

Jefferson buried his wife in the graveyard at Monticello, and as a part of her epitaph added lines in Greek from Homer’s The Iliad: “Nay if even in the house of Hades the dead forget their dead, yet will I even there be mindful of my dear comrade.”

If the writing of the American Declaration of Independance was the ultimate outward accomplishment in Jefferson’s life, one that would change the world of man forever, the death of his wife was the ultimate inward tragedy, one that would change the inner world of his heart forever. Thomas Jefferson’s wife rated over and above any other ingredient in his life, and the days, months and years following Martha’s death were spent coming to terms with the past, the present and contemplating the future.

III. “Head and Heart”

A musical response to the personal turmoil presented by the accomplishment

of the Declaration balanced with the tragedy of his wife’s untimely death

Montecello: “Little Hill,” Jefferson’s beloved home and grounds


“We hold these truths, to be self-evident,”

Tenor and Soprano:

“that all men are created…”

“Behold Me at Length on the Vaunted Scene of Europe”


In 1784 Congress called upon Thomas Jefferson to leave Monticello and represent the United States abroad in France. This request offered a timely opportunity for Jefferson to cut through the fog of grief that preoccupied his mind and days at Monticello and to revive his interest in, and connection to, words, ideas and the affairs of the world. Jefferson agreed to serve as Commissioner to France, deciding to take his two daughters with him.

While in France, Jefferson’s spirit was renewed – an enlightenment spirit of culture, passion, intellectualism, romance and discovery, that included an embrace and further study and admiration of fine wine, food, architecture and agriculture. In 1786 he composed a remarkable letter to an English woman he met in France named Maria Cosway. This extraordinary letter is a unique window into Jefferson’s state of mind at this pivotal time in his life. It describes a struggle for balance between reason and emotion and is set as a fervent, argumentative conversation between two characters – Jefferson’s own head and his own heart – and we are to judge for ourselves the victor.

Paris is the background for this view down the Champs-Elysees through the Grille de Chaillot. Thomas Jefferson’s house, the Hotel de Langeac, was on the left at the near corner, and he lived there as minister to France in the 1780’s. 1779 Engraving by Francois Nicolas Martinet Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale (187)


“My Head, addressing my Heart: This is not a world to live at random in as you do. To avoid those eternal distresses, to which you are forever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace… Everything in this world is a matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, & see which preponderates. The making an acquaintance is not a matter of indifference. When a new one is proposed to you, view it all round. Consider what advantages it presents, & to what inconveniences it may expose you. Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it. The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: & he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks & shoals with which he is beset. Pleasure is always before us; but misfortune is at our side: while running after that, this arrests us. The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, & to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures…”

“My Heart, speaking to my Head: …In a life where we are perpetually exposed to want & accident, yours is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire from all aid, & to wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life; & thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine. Let the gloomy monk, sequestered from the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell! Let the sublimated philosopher grasp visionary happiness while pursuing phantoms dressed in the garb of truth! Their supreme wisdom is supreme folly; & they mistake for happiness the mere absence of pain. Had they ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives, which you have been vaunting in such elevated terms. Believe me then my friend, that is a miserable arithmetic which could estimate friendship at nothing, or at less than nothing. Respect for you has induced me to enter into this discussion, & to hear principles uttered which I detest & abjure. Respect for myself now obliges me to recall you into the proper limits of your office. When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals… as Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head!”

“Jefferson and Liberty”


Though Jefferson greatly enjoyed and appreciated his time in France serving as a strong representative for the United States, he was not present for the drafting of the US Constitution and much of the activity surrounding its debates. Nevertheless, he kept up with the activity through letters from his friend James Madison and, in turn, let his thoughts be known through return letters. His most fervent stance was for the clarifying of the interpretation of the Constitution and for the safeguarding against too liberal or too loose of an interpretation through the addition of a Bill of Rights, which he did much to shape in conjunction with Madison, and which stands beside the Constitution as a bedrock of America’s present-day political system.

But finding himself feeling uncomforatably disconnected with the activity in the US, and frustrated that he was not present to debate and lobby for his strong beliefs, he was eager to return home to re-enter US politics when his assignment in France ended. As fortune had it, he was requested by General Washington, upon returning to America, to immediately re-enter US politics at the front of the stage. He seized the opportunity, moving to Washington in 1789 to serve as America’s first Secretary of State under its first President, George Washington.

Jefferson moved up the political ladder quickly, next serving as vice president under John Adams and then ultimately as the third President of the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson had remarried his head and his heart to the world of words, ideas, and affairs of the world, and through his first innaugural address, crafted his vision for the young nation.


“A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye – when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.”

“But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

“Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles; …equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people, and a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace, and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; and economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; and the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.”

“These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. These principles should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from these principals in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

“May that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801)

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800

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