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

Because democratic self-government requires a special kind of culture — one that fosters self-reliant selves — the Protestantism of the Founding Fathers also helped the Revolution succeed. Their Protestant worldview placed an intense value on the individual — his conscience, the state of his soul, his understanding of Scripture, his personal relation to God, his salvation. It was an easy step for them to assume that, as each man was endowed by his Creator with an immortal soul immediately related to God, so he was similarly endowed with rights that are not the donation of Law, as Constitution signer William Livingston put it, but prior to all political Institution and resulting in the Nature of Man.

Myron Magnet
The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735 - 1817 (2014)