John Adams was a member of the Congressional committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence. All the members of the committee, including Thomas Jefferson, thought Adams should write the first draft. Needless to say, the author of a document declaring independence from the British Empire would have instant worldwide fame. Adams could have easily seized this opportunity to solidify a position of power in Congress and around the world. Adams, however, refused to write the first draft. He insisted that Jefferson write it.
Adams gave three reasons why Jefferson should write the Declaration. Each reason shows how Adams put his love of country above his own self-interests. If only more of our current governmental leaders could follow in Adams’ footsteps.
Reason 1: Jefferson was a Virginian. Adams recognized that for all the colonies to support such a declaration the words must come from the pen of a Virginian. Virginia was the largest, wealthiest, and most influential colony. If Adams, a New Englander, was to write the declaration, it might not get the support needed from the southern colonies. Adams told Jefferson “you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business.”
Reason 2: Jefferson was more popular than Adams. John Adams had a way of stirring up conflict. As a result, many fellow congressmen didn’t like him. Adams knew this. Rather than trying to use the Declaration as a tool to gain some popularity among his peers, he instead told Jefferson that he must write it because Jefferson was more popular. Adams gave up an opportunity for self-advancement because again, above all else, he wanted all the colonies to support the Declaration of Independence. Adams told Jefferson, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.”
Reason 3: Jefferson was a better writer that Adams. Thomas Jefferson was an amazing writer. Adams was not. Adams knew that the document which was about to be drafted had to be able to convince the colonies, and the entire world, that these colonies were now independent from the British Empire. Not only that, but it had to explain why these colonies must declare their independence. The declaration had to succinctly and eloquently send a message to King George III that the colonies were serious about breaking away from his empire. Adams told Jefferson, “you can write ten times better than I.”
From Adams’ three reasons it’s clear that he held the advancement of his country above the advancement of his own political career. Jefferson and Adams would later become political enemies. While not enemies at the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Adams had many opposing ideologies. Slavery being one of the most contentious differences. Adams abhorred slavery. Jefferson was a slave owner. These differences didn’t prevent Adams from recognizing that Jefferson was the better man when it came to drafting one of the most important documents ever written, The Declaration of Independence. Adams willingly put his own self-interest aside, and in an act of astonishing humility, told Jefferson to draft what would become the document that set democracy in motion. For this, I love the guy that didn’t write the Declaration of Independence.
You can read Adams’ letter to Timothy Pickering where he recounts the drafting of the Declaration of Independence here.