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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > May-18 > Crumbling monument

Crumbling monument

Thomas Jefferson was a slave-holder who urged permanent revolution. He doesn’t deserve to be called an American hero, argues Ferdinand Mount
“A mere draughtsman”: Thomas Jefferson (standing) works on the Declaration of Independence with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, by Jean Leon Gerome (1932)
© UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

There are two stories about how Thomas Jefferson came to write the United States Declaration of Independence. The most famous is Jefferson’s own account: “The committee of five met; no such thing as a sub-committee was proposed, but they unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught.”

The other comes from John Adams, Jefferson’s grumpy, brilliant predecessor both as vice-president and as president of the US. Both men were writing nearly 50 years after the event, but I prefer Adams’s version, which brings back the anxious, chaotic days of July 1776. “We were all in haste, Congress was impatient,” Adams recalled, “and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson’s handwriting as he first drew it”—no time for a fair copy.

Adams thought the Declaration, for all its subsequent fame, “contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments hacknied in Congress for two years before.” Jefferson retorted that “I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether.” In fact, several weeks earlier, while Jefferson was away in Philadelphia, George Mason had composed Virginia’s own Declaration of Rights in very similar language, down to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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In Prospect’s May issue: More than a dozen writers critique the current state of economics, suggesting there are still lessons to learn more than a decade on from the financial crash. Howard Reed writes that the ideas we hold about the way economics works need to be ripped up. Ten of the world’s best living economists explain what, in their view, is the single most important lesson economics still has to learn, and Linda Yueh suggests what three of the past masters would think about economics today. Elsewhere in the issue: Vernon Bogdanor outlines why Brexit could cause a constitutional crisis in Britain; Jean H Lee explains why young South Koreans don’t want their country to reunify with their Northern neighbours; Sian Norris writes about the coming battle over abortion and shows where the UK ranks among its European peers; and Sonia Purnell profiles Jacob Rees-Mogg.
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