Rice University’s John Boles was for many years (1983-2013) editor of The Journal of Southern History, which after The Journal of American History is the most-cited scholarly journal in the field of American history. In that position, he had substantial influence on, besides being substantially influenced by, the shape of the field today. Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty comes as a kind of valedictory. As in his earlier work, Boles is self-consciously guided in writing it by recent developments in academic historiography. Contemporary politics make themselves felt in his story of the Master of Monticello, too. A full one-volume account has long…
Political rhetoric does more than simply convey partisan messages. It can also provide insight into changing conceptions of the relationship between the citizen and government, the ruled and the rulers.
So, for example, in its 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress did not just lay out its case for seceding from the British Empire. Rather, it claimed that God had endowed men with certain inalienable rights, famously including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It also envisioned the citizenry as ultimately in a position of mastery over its government. When government ceased to serve their purposes, Congress claimed, “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.”
Ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Virginia
The Philadelphia Convention rent Virginia’s political elite as no event ever had. Not only had Patrick Henry refused his proffered seat (he said he “smelt a rat”), but two of the three delegates who stayed through the whole Convention before finally refusing to sign were Virginians.
And not just any Virginians. Non-signer Edmund Randolph, the Old Dominion’s governor at the time, had served virtually throughout the Convention as chief advocate of the Virginia Plan, which the delegates knew as “Randolph’s Resolutions.” Perhaps even more significantly, Virginian politicos generally recognized George Mason as their state’s leading constitutional authority. He had taken the lead in drafting both the Virginia Constitution of 1776—the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world—and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the first American declaration of rights. Mason refused to sign too.
Randolph explained his recusant posture by pointing to the several objections he had developed in the course of deliberations, and then saying that he intended to leave the question open until the people of his home state had an opportunity to express their sentiments. Mason, characteristically more forthright and less concerned with popular opinion, made no secret of the fact that, as James Madison put it, he “left Philada. in an exceeding ill humor indeed.”