- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Jack Nelson wandered downstairs from his office at the Virginia Historical Society to peek at the new exhibition on Thomas Jefferson before it opened to the public.

Museum staff members weren’t quite finished with the installation, so the lighting wasn’t perfect and not everything was in its proper place, but Nelson experienced a powerful moment of clarity and appreciation just the same.

He was drawn to an unassuming framed document hanging on a wall. He stood a few inches away, put on his glasses, and read with wonder the words that formed the foundation of the United States of America.

The document? A handwritten copy of an original draft of the Declaration of Independence, written in remarkably neat, decisive and legible cursive in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson.

It read, in part: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their creator with inherent & inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”

Nelson marveled, “There it is in his own handwriting!”

Seeing the manuscript unleashed the history student in Nelson, the historical society’s interim CEO and chairman of its board of trustees who earned a doctorate in history in the 1970s, writing his dissertation on the economic history of the early United States.

“It was just a particularly moving experience,” said Nelson, who still was wound up about it.

Inspired after that first viewing, he returned to his office and dashed off a letter to his fellow board members, calling it “unquestionably . the most significant document we have ever had displayed at the Virginia Historical Society.”

“It is hard to describe how moving it is to see a document that so transformed the world over the next 250 years as it was originally penned by a human being not unlike ourselves (though obviously far more talented than most),” Nelson wrote. “It reminded me that in this particular time when decency itself seems under assault, that we all share a common political origin rooted in Jefferson’s vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The exhibition, “The Private Jefferson,” features more than 60 architectural drawings, broadsides and letters on loan from the Massachusetts Historical Society, which boasts the largest collection of Jefferson’s private papers.

It seems odd that Massachusetts would be the home of such a collection as Jefferson remains one of Virginia’s best-known figures, but the papers migrated to New England through Jefferson’s descendants.

Admission to the exhibition is free for members of the historical society and $10 for nonmembers. The exhibition is on display through Jan. 22.

Jefferson was 33 when he sat down in Philadelphia in June 1776 at his specially designed writing desk - a replica of which is on permanent display at the historical society - and crafted the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the “committee of five” that was composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Jefferson.

He was not fond of some of the edits made by the Continental Congress to his draft, in particular the elimination of his condemnation of slavery, so he made several handwritten copies of his original text that he could show to friends and colleagues. The first page of one of those copies is on display at the historical society.

A frequent question from early visitors to the exhibit was: “So, this is a photocopy, right?”

Nope, says Andy Talkov, the historical society’s vice president for programs; this is the real deal.

Jefferson put pen to paper and wrote that,” he tells anyone who asks. “It’s unbelievable that such a thing exists and that they’re standing right in front of it. There’s almost a sense of disbelief.”

Most of us are accustomed to seeing the elegant printed declaration, so getting a look at a handwritten version on a simple sheet of paper is really quite something, knowing that you’re seeing the paper that Jefferson held and the words exactly as he penned them.

My first thought: “Amazing!” My second: His handwriting sure is better than mine.

As Nelson and I walked through the exhibit in the Virginia Sargeant Reynolds Gallery, he noted that Jefferson wasn’t without his faults - notably the fact that he owned slaves, which doesn’t exactly square with his anti-slavery passage in his original draft of the declaration.

“Even though he was a slaveholder at the time . something led him to think beyond it,” said Nelson, who believes the “ideological origins” for the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery came from the declaration. “Jefferson in his own way laid the foundation for what became the end of slavery.”

Nothing about Jefferson’s personal life, Nelson said, “diminishes the aspirations he put on paper.”

Moreover, Nelson said, “nothing equals the visions that were enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.”


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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