SpeakerJames H. Billington

InstitutionLibrary of Congress

SubjectA Summary View of the Rights of British America

A Summary View of the Rights of British America was the fiery pamphlet that Thomas Jefferson wrote as a 31-year old member of the Virginia House of Burgesses that established his reputation as a forceful champion of American rights and led to his being asked, two years later, to draft the American Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Summary View as a proposed set of instructions to Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The pamphlet was then published anonymously in Williamsburg by Clementina Rind, one of the earliest female printers in America.

Jefferson shifted the blame for the rising tensions in the relations between Great Britain and the colonies away from the British Parliament. He directly blamed King George III, for the breakdown in relations.

He argued that the colonies had repeatedly petitioned King George for less oppressive taxes, but the king had failed to respond. Jefferson emphasized that human rights were derived from the laws of nature, not from a king.

The version of the Summary View shown on the World Digital Library is Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy. In it, Jefferson proudly inscribed his name as author on the title page, and made edits in the text to strengthen his argument.

The printed text states that when legislative bodies are dissolved, “the power reverts to the people, who may exercise it to unlimited extent in any way that they may think proper.” Directly addressing the king in the form of a petition, Jefferson, in his handwritten annotation, claims that the people have the right -- should they so decide -- “to lay the throne of your majesty prostrate, or to discontinue their connection with the British empire.”

The severing of the connection with the British Empire indeed happened two years later, when the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Britain and asked Thomas Jefferson to draft the declaration, largely on the strength of the reputation he had established as a masterful writer and passionate advocate of American rights in the Summary View.