The following is a rush transcript.
David: 00:05 Good day, citizens, and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good day to you, Mr. President.
Jefferson: 00:05 Good day to you, citizen.
David: 00:18 Mr. Jefferson, we're looking at another anniversary of the fourth of July and I was thinking about you authoring the document, and wondering if you looked to historical precedents to write this document.
Jefferson: 00:34 Yes, to a certain degree. The history of Britain as the history of recovery of British rights from the Norman Conquest in the 11th century and I was always trying to harken back to Anglo Saxon rights that were first developed in northern Europe and transplanted to Britain, and then once these pro democratic norms had been established in England, unfortunately the British were overwhelmed by the Norman French in 1066 and William the Conqueror, and the subsequent history of England was the slow and agonizing recovery of those more Ancient Saxon rights. So French documents as the Magna Carta and the British bill of rights that came in 1688 at the end of the long ordeal with the Stewart family — those were not precisely templates for what I was doing in the Declaration of Independence, but they mattered because in each of them, the people who believed in liberty articulated what they thought they could achieve against the monarchy of Britain or against the church or against the parliament. So in some regards I was looking at these previous British documents, and working from them as a base, but going, I think much farther than the British had ever gone before.
David: 02:01 This was sort of a dicey affair, Mr. President. There was no guarantee it was going to work. I'm thinking in terms of contemporary occurrences during your lifetime. Were there any other groups of colonies or small nations that chose to break away from a mother country?
Jefferson: 02:21 No, nothing like it in the modern world. I must tell you, we weren't really wanting to break away from Great Britain. All of us, with a tiny number of real radicals — the great majority of us wanted to reconcile with Britain. All we wanted was a due respect for our rights as British citizens. And one of the fundamentals of British political theory is that a person shall not be taxed without being represented in the very body that presumes to tax him and suddenly after the Stamp Act crisis, the 1760s, we were being taxed by the British parliament without any representation in that parliament. And so we felt we were good, naive, solid British citizens demanding to be treated as such. But the people that Britain were treating us as some sort of colonial subservience and a far colony across the world.
David: 03:20 Are you saying Mr. Jefferson, that the majority of the American population was not in favor of this Declaration of Independence?
Jefferson: 03:27 Certainly not. I think if there had been a plebiscite on July 8th, 1776, that the great majority of the three or so million Americans would have said, maybe that goes too far, too fast.
David: 03:27 Because it meant war.
Jefferson: 03:43 Well, the war had already come to us. That's the point. That's the point that Thomas Paine kept making in his periodical writings and in Common Sense that the British were already waging war against us. They were, they were stabbing us with bayonets that we're shooting us down in the public square. They were attacking troops at Lexington and Concord who were in a state of withdrawing, so the British had begun the violence. We didn't begin the violence. The British did. We had dumped some tea into Boston harbor, but that didn't involve any human injury or loss of life.
David: 04:16 But still, sir, 56 men signed this document. There must have been personal fear about what could happen to them for doing that.
Jefferson: 04:22 Well, John Hancock stepped up and wrote in very large letters and said, George III won't need spectacles.
David: 04:30 I must thank you, Mr. Jefferson, for authoring this document and for your service to the nation, sir.
Jefferson: 04:34 Oh, I played a small role. I was just the penman of this thing, but it was the John Adams and the Continental Congress that had the strength of character and the moral courage in June and early July of 1776 to do the thing that we all suspected would have to be done, but we're very reluctant to do, which is to declare ourselves a free, sovereign and independent nation.
David: 04:55 Thank you very much, Mr Jefferson.
Jefferson: 04:57 You're most welcome, sir.