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Thomas Jefferson's Role in the Revolutionary War

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the role Thomas Jefferson played in the Revolutionary War. We will highlight his activity as a revolutionary leader in Virginia, and we will understand how he helped to secure American independence.

A Close Call for a Radical Revolutionary

In the summer of 1781, a captain in the Virginia militia named Jack Jouett arrived at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Shouting as he hastily secured the horse he had ridden throughout the night, Jouett warned Jefferson that British forces were on their way to capture him and would be arriving shortly. He advised Jefferson to flee for his life immediately. Jefferson and his family escaped, just in the nick of time.

Sometimes we forget just how ''revolutionary'' Thomas Jefferson and other American Founders were. First of all, they were criminals to British authorities. Jefferson, in particular, had been a wanted man. He promoted the revolution by serving as an officer in the Virginia militia before becoming the governor of the independent state. On top of that, he was the man responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence; the treason of all treasons. Had Jefferson been captured by the British in 1781, he likely would have been hanged. We know a lot of about Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States, but in this lesson let's take a look at his role in the Revolutionary War.

The Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence

When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Jefferson was a practicing lawyer and a representative in the House of Burgesses, which was Virginia's legislative assembly. Jefferson held Patriot sympathies, meaning he supported the colonies' struggle for liberty against Great Britain. These values, combined with his educational background, won him election to the Continental Congress, a revolutionary assembly made up of delegates from the 13 colonies. At the beginning of the war, he also served in the Virginia Militia holding the rank of colonel.

Thomas Jefferson was a delegate to the Continental Congress, the revolutionary assembly of the 13 colonies.
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By June 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. The task of drafting the declaration fell to Jefferson. At the suggestion of his friend, John Adams, Jefferson agreed to write the document, while Adams (and Benjamin Franklin) helped edit. The Declaration of Independence, America's founding document, was finalized throughout the month of June, signed on July 2nd, and ratified on July 4th, 1776.

Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Depicted sitting near him are John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who helped with the editing.
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Legislator and Governor of Virginia

After the colonies became independent states, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, which was basically the legislative successor to the House of Burgesses. Jefferson rose to become a leading legislator and worked on the state's constitution. He worked tirelessly to establish religious liberty in Virginia. In 1777, he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This important document guaranteed religious liberty to Virginians of all sects and religions, and eradicated the Anglican Church (the Church of England) as the official religion of the state. Although drafted in 1777, the law was not enacted until 1786. Jefferson regarded this as one of his three greatest life accomplishments (along with drafting the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia).

In 1779, Jefferson was elected the second governor of the state of Virginia. The first governor had been Patrick Henry. As governor, Jefferson transferred the state capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, Virginia. Williamsburg was reminiscent of colonial days, whereas a new capital city symbolized the bright future of the new United States of America.

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