The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword: Writing what would become the Declaration of Independence

4 July, 2012

people, Uncategorized, writing

Could it be that the reason Tom Jefferson was assigned the actual task of writing the rough draft of the document that would become the Declaration of Independence was as simple as his name was listed first on a “committee” list?

This is Jefferson’s ORIGINAL introduction to the document– the rough draft:

A Declaration of Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress assembled.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independant station to which the laws of nature & of nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the change.

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles & organising it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness.

Between this draft and the final Declaration of Independence that we recognize were edits incorporated from many of the others on that committee, such as John Adams and Ben Franklin, as well as expansive cuts made by Congress before final approval.

The introduction of the final Declaration:

The unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of AMERICA.

WHEN, in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another; and to assume, among the Powers Of The Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.

and this is followed by his argument for independence from British rule. (Declaration of Independence text)

Time Magazine reports (“Declaring Independence: How They Chose These Words“):

How was it that Jefferson, at 33, got the honor of drafting the document? His name was listed first on the committee, signifying that he was the chairman, because he had gotten the most votes and because he was from Virginia, the colony that had proposed the resolution.

According to John Adams, Jefferson and he were identified by the declaration committee because they were listed first and second (respectively) on the list, but what’s most hilarious is his account of their bickering over this hot potato:

‘Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.’

But exactly how did Jefferson come to write many of the most famous phrases we know today….”when in the course of human events” and “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” for example? He used as a springboard some of the same rhetoric and language his peers were using at the time. In fact,

Jefferson…borrowed freely from the phrasings of others, including the resounding Declaration of Rights in the new Virginia constitution that had just been drafted by his fellow planter George Mason, in a manner that today might subject him to questions of plagiarism but back then was considered not only proper but learned.

He originally wrote:
“We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” which was edited to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
How this particularly famous edit came about is still debated:
Time reports that Jefferson asked Ben Franklin to edit his draft and that this edit is attributable to Franklin:

The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

And, because I’m most fascinated with the thought and ideology behind the words:

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher had developed a theory that distinguished between “synthetic” truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and “analytic” truths that are so by virtue of reason and definition (“the angles of a triangle total 180 degrees”; “all bachelors are unmarried”). Hume referred to the latter type of axioms as “self-evident” truths. By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had implied, intentionally or not, that the principle in question–the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights–was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

But did Franklin truly make this edit? (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton University)
This change has been attributed to Franklin, but the opinion rests on no conclusive evidence, and there seems to be even stronger evidence that the change was made by TJ or at least that it is in his handwriting (Boyd, Declaration of Independence, 1945, p. 22-3).
Other sources note this key edit shows up in John Adams revision, and so on.
Another key edit was the change from this draft: “that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable” to this more “Christian” or religious language: “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their CREATOR with certain unalienable Rights….” And the uppercase text emphasizes this even more.
All in all here is a document that underwent numerous edits, incorporated the feedback from more than a few politicians and businessmen of the time before finally being approved by the then Congress as our Declaration of Independence, our official separation from England and the King’s rule.
One can only imagine the heated debates that ensued over some of the language of this document– what word to use versus another, what particular nuance of an argument should be included….
From June 11 to June 28, 1776, [Jefferson] worked on a rough draft, which he presented to Congress on July 1. The delegates edited Jefferson’s draft from July 2 to July 4. On July 4, they met in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), in Philadelphia, and approved the Declaration. John Hancock and Charles Thomson signed it and it was sent to John Dunlap’s print shop a few blocks away…
Early on July 5, about 200 broadsides of the text were printed at John Dunlap’s shop. They were rushed to the 13 colonies and to the army to be read aloud to the people. Congress ordered an official, or engrossed copy on parchment paper to be signed by all the delegates. On August 2, most members signed the Declaration, with others following within the next several months.
Today, I am thinking about the gravity of this document and the guts it took to participate. By the very act of writing it and signing it, all involved were daring to commit treason against the British Crown. This was a crime that, at the time under English law, was punishable by being hanged, drawn, and quartered–literally to be hanged by their necks until dead then mutilated and cut up into pieces with the body parts posted in public.
Ben Franklin: “as he was about to sign the Declaration, he remarked, ‘We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.’”  (“The Unfinished Revolution,” the National Park Service).
Happy Independence Day.
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