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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

And a crack shot even among Virginians


to this point the colonists, if rebellious in their practical attitude, had been strictly constitutional in their avowed aims. In the "Declaration of Colonial Right" of 1774, and even in the appeal to arms of 1775, all suggestion of breaking away from the Empire was repudiated. But now that the sword was virtually drawn there were practical considerations which made the most prudent of the rebels consider whether it would not be wiser to take the final step, and frankly repudiate the British Sovereignty altogether. For one thing, by the laws of England, and indeed of all civilized nations, the man who took part in an armed insurrection against the head of the State committed treason, and the punishment for treason was death. Men who levied war on the King's forces while still acknowledging him as their lawful ruler were really inviting the Government to hang them as soon as it could catch them. It might be more difficult for the British Government to treat as criminals soldiers who were fighting under the orders of an organized _de facto_ government, which at any rate declared itself to be that of an independent nation. Again, foreign aid, which would not be given for the purpose of reforming the internal administration of British dominions, might well be forthcoming if it were a question of dismembering those dominions. These considerations were just and carried no little weight; yet it is doubtful if they would have been strong enough to prevail against the sentiments and traditions
which still bound the colonies to the mother country had not the attack on the charters forced the controversy back to first principles, and so opened the door of history to the man who was to provide America with a creed and to convert the controversy from a legal to something like a religious quarrel.

Old Peyton Randolph, who had so largely guided the deliberations of the first Continental Congress, was at the last moment prevented by ill-health from attending the second. His place in the Virginian Delegation was taken by Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was not yet thirty when he took his seat in the Continental Congress, but he was already a notable figure in his native State. He belonged by birth to the slave-holding gentry of the South, though not to the richest and most exclusive section of that class. Physically he was long limbed and loose jointed, but muscular, with a strong ugly face and red hair. He was adept at the physical exercises which the Southerners cultivated most assiduously, a bold and tireless rider who could spend days in the saddle without fatigue, and a crack shot even among Virginians. In pursuit of the arts and especially of music he was equally eager, and his restless intelligence was keenly intrigued by the new wonders that physical science was beginning to reveal to men; mocking allusions to his interest in the habits of horned frogs will be found in American pasquinades of two generations. He had sat in the Virginian House of Burgesses and had taken a prominent part in the resistance of that body to the royal demands. As a speaker, however, he was never highly successful, and a just knowledge of his own limitations, combined perhaps with a temperamental dislike, generally led him to rely on his pen rather than his tongue in public debate. For as a writer he had a command of a pure, lucid and noble English unequalled in his generation and equalled by Corbett alone.

But for history the most important thing about the man is his creed. It was the creed of a man in the forefront of his age, an age when French thinkers were busy drawing from the heritage of Latin civilizations those fundamental principles of old Rome which custom and the corruptions of time had overgrown. The gospel of the new age had already been written: it had brought to the just mind of Jefferson a conviction which he was to communicate to all his countrymen, and through them to the new nation which the sword was creating. The Declaration of Independence is the foundation stone of the American Republic, and the Declaration of Independence in its essential part is but an incomparable translation and compression of the _Contrat Social_. The aid which France brought to America did not begin when a French fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay. It began when, perhaps years before the first whisper of discontent, Thomas Jefferson sat down in his Virginian study to read the latest work of the ingenious M. Rousseau.

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