Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth!

Well, today being the fourth of July, I thought I might post something about the document that is celebrated today. We're writers, so I thought it would be interesting to post not about the politics and philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence, but about the actual writing of it.

We often imagine (at least I do) streams of pure, inspired philosophical genius flowing effortlessly from the pen of Thomas Jefferson. But it wasn't like that at all.

The colonies had been at war for a year before Congress decided to pass a declaration stating their independence. Jefferson was one of five men appointed to a committee assigned to draft this declaration, but really, he did not want to be a part of it at all. The committee, led by John Adams, in turn appointed Jefferson to write the draft on his own, and submit it for their review. Jefferson agreed, but very reluctantly.

He wrote his draft in haste, drawing inspiration from his own prior writings and other works he had read - in particular, the Virginia Bill of Rights. Historians are aware of an early "composition draft" and then a "rough draft," which was the one Jefferson submitted to the committee of five. The committee, especially Adams and Benjamin Franklin, suggested changes in word-choice. For example, instead of Jefferson's "sacred and undeniable" truths, they preferred "self-evident" ones. A new copy, called the "fair copy," was made incorporating these changes, and was submitted to Congress.

Adams would later write that he chose Jefferson to write the draft for three reasons: 1) Jefferson was from Virginia, and Virginia had to be in the forefront of things; 2) Jefferson was a better writer than Adams; and 3) Jefferson was better liked than Adams (ouch!)

When the fair copy draft came before Congress, a total of eighty-six changes were made to it, and the draft was cut by about 25%. Jefferson was upset to see these changes. He would later make several hand copies of his original, unchanged composition and send these to his friends.

Adams would later say of the Declaration of Independence that it full of "hackneyed ideas" and material robbed from pamphlets. Jefferson denied that he had stolen material from other sources, but said that he did have many of the things he had previously read on his mind while writing it. Jefferson said his composition was thus an "expression of the American mind," and all the better for it.

The final physical version of the document, the one that bears the authentic signatures, is called the "engrossed copy," and was actually hand-copied by a clerk. So except for Jefferson's signature, we do not even see his penmanship on the most famous version of the document.

A generation after it was first written, Jefferson found himself vigorously defending his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. He later came to be proud of it, and was pleased that it was receiving its due reverence.

So, that's it for me and the "expression of the American mind," 1776-style. I'm off to potato salad and fireworks. Enjoy your holiday!


  1. Nice post, I love finding out facts about historical documents that helped shape history.

  2. What a lovely post.

    Jefferson was a very smart man, and Adams was also spooky smart. This intellect and will dominated history and had profound changes of which we still receive benefits from today.

  3. I have always found it morbidly fascinating that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away exactly 50 years later on the 4th of July.

  4. RIP John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Thanks for this extraordinary (if occasionally messy) democracy and the foundation it rests upon.
    And thanks Diane for an interesting Fourth of July post. Happy day to all.

  5. Thanks for the info Diane. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit.


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