“It is the glorious 4th of July!”
– John Adams
And so it is. Today we celebrate the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson. John Adams had noted Jefferson’s “happy talent for composition” and “remarkable felicity of expression” and assigned the paperwork to him. Unlike young men today, Jefferson protested that he was the junior member of the committee; surely an older, wiser, more experienced man such as Benjamin Franklin or Adams himself should write the crucial paper. Adams responded that anything he wrote would be savaged merely because it came from him. Besides, he told Jefferson, “You write ten times better than I do,” which is something you wouldn’t hear from a lot of older, wiser, more experienced men.
In many ways, Jefferson was a compiler rather than an originator. He was tasked not with creating a justification for separation from king and country, but rather with distilling everything the colonists had previously written and said into a cogent argument for independence. As he wrote late in life to Henry Lee:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
The Declaration, once written, had to be approved by the Continental Congress. This involved a public editing job which Jefferson had to sit through. It’s bad enough to watch someone else alter your work privately, but in front of the greatest men in the colonies? Compiler and distiller or not, it must have been quite the ordeal. But in that rarest of literary feats, a committee improved a person’s writing.
Here is Jefferson’s original preamble:
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, and to assume among the powers of the earth the equal and independent 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 change.
And the familiar final version, with that era’s ideas about capitalization:
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.
It was not dramatically changed, but it was dramatically improved. Then, there was Jefferson’s next sentence: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin altered that to, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” A little tighter, a little more forceful. Every good writer needs a good editor.
Franklin, to take some of the sting out of the process, told Jefferson a little story about another editing job.
On July 4, 1776, a clean copy of the Declaration was presented, and the United States of America wrote itself into existence.
All that remained was the war and governing.
P.S.: Here’s an important article about something else Jefferson wrote.