Drafting the Declaration of Independence, Part III

Thomas Jefferson was a shy man. While disarmingly charming among people he knew, he could seem cool and distant to others. At 33 he was the youngest delegate to Continental Congress. He did not participate in the rough and tumble of Congressional debate. As John Adams later recalled (Autobiography, part 1, ms. p. 24), he had attended his Duty in the House but a very small part of the time and when there had never spoken in public: and during the whole Time I satt [sic] with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together.

Laptop desk, designed by Jefferson, used to draft the Declaration

Jefferson was a writer.

Drafting the Declaration was an assignment on deadline. He had received instructions from the Committee of Five on the tenor and the kinds of points that needed to be made. Afterwards, taking comments and criticism on his draft from members of the Committee, he edited his work.

Tradition has it that Franklin (since it looks like his handwriting) sharpened sacred and undeniable to self-evident. Perhaps Jefferson himself realized that the next conjunction, equal and independent, was no longer rhetorically balanced. There is no way to know for certain, and it has also been argued that Adams emended the text. And who added they are endowed by their creator — which has no antecedent in Mason’s Declaration of Rights?

Assembly Room, Pennsylvania State House, where Congress revised Jefferson’s text once more

Though Jefferson no doubt accepted revisions from members of the Committee with grace, it must have been excruciating for him to sit through three days of debate and revision by the full Congress (2 – 4 July 1776). Counter-intuitively, it improved the Declaration, elaborating or tightening and deleting large portions toward the end. Of course given the political realities and the very real attachment of the southern colonies to their peculiar institution, the paragraph on the slave trade was expunged as well.

The famous 35 words under consideration here, however — except for the substitution of a word, a change to word form, and standardization by the printer — were left intact:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Today, whether the Fourth of July or any other day, we regard these founding words as the words of Thomas Jefferson.

§   §   §   

1.  Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights — approved 12 June 1776 by the Virginia Convention

2.  Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence — changes by Jefferson and the Committee of Five

3.  First printed version of the Declaration — changes by Congress and the printer, John Dunlap

 

We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable self-evident

<< unchanged >>

That all men are by nature

that all men are created

<< unchanged >>

equally free and independent

equal & independent

<< unchanged >>

 

that from that equal creation they derive they are endowed by their creator

that they are endowed by their Creator

and have certain inherent rights

rights with inherent

with inherent certain

of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity

& inalienable rights

inalienable unalienable Rights

namely the enjoyment of life and liberty

that among which these are life, & liberty

that among these are Life, Liberty

with the means of acquiring and possessing property

 

 

and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety

& the pursuit of happiness

& and the pursuit of Happiness

part 1  |  part 2  |  part 3

JDN | 4-Jul-2014

The unattractive truth was that the arrival of the provisional treaty ending the war in April 1783 made the Continental Army superfluous, and the sooner it disappeared, the better. Congress eventually voted to provide full pay for five years for officers in lieu of half pay for life, but doing so was a purely rhetorical exercise, since there was no money in the federal coffers to pay anyone. Even that meaningless commitment generated widespread criticism, especially in New England, where returning officers were greeted with newspaper editorials describing them as blood-beaked vultures feeding at the public trough. At least in retrospect, the dissolution of the Continental Army in the spring of 1783 was one of the most poignant scenes in American history, as the men who had stayed the course and won the war were ushered off without pay, with paper pensions and only grudging recognition of their service.

Joseph J. Ellis
The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783—1789 (2015)