Editing the Declaration of Independence

“Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was edited and corrected to some extent by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Where Jefferson had written, ‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,’ Franklin substituted ‘self-evident for ‘sacred and undeniable.’ In the famous opening sentence Jefferson had written, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people’; Franklin changed the word ‘a’ to ‘one.’

The moment the draft of the Declaration was submitted to the Continental Congress for approval, Benjamin Harrison rose to his feet and said: ‘There is but one word in this paper which I approved, and that is the word Congress.’

After a great deal of spirited discussion pro and con, four hundred words were cut from the first draft. In some cases strong words were changed to weak ones. By the third day, Jefferson … said he was ‘writhing.’ Benjamin Franklin came to his aid, not only with editorial advice, but with full moral and parliamentary support. Thus the basic structure of the document was retained and its integrity preserved. …

When Jefferson was seventy-three, in the year 1816, he wrote to a friend: ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I know that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book reading; and this they would themselves would say, were they to rise from the dead. … Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.’ …

On another occasion Jefferson said: ‘I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.’ ”

—M. Lincoln Shuster, A Treasury of The World’s Great Letters (New York: Simon and Shuster), pgs. 170–71. (Yes, that’s the Shuster who co-founded Simon & Shuster.)

I often think of the world’s great writers of old as untouchables: men and women beyond question, inspired beyond measure. Yet, as Jefferson so acutely observes, they were like us. The difference being their time, place and decisions. Jefferson’s time and locale involved distress, yet he made the correct decision.

Jefferson wrote the Declaration from Canada. In his letter to William Fleming, dated July 1–2, 1776, he comments, “it is a painful situation to be 300 miles from one’s country, & thereby open to secret assassination without a possibility of self-defence. I am to hope nothing of the kind has been done in my case, & yet I cannot be easy. if any doubt has arisen as to me, my country will have my political creed in the form of a ‘Declaration’ which I was lately directed to draw. this will give decisive proof that my own sentiment concurred with the vote they instructed us to give. had the post been to go a day later we might have been at liberty to communicate this whole matter.”

Despite popular folklore, the Declaration was not written by candlelight, in a fit of rage or by men at their wit’s end. Instead, it was written over a period of four days, a page each day, by one stressed man, and then severely edited.

I have always considered Jefferson one of the greatest writing minds to ever live, seated at the helm of a revolution that I am proud to call my own. Those things he was, but he was human, like you and me. He was brilliant, but he too was edited. In the midst of fear, he wrote. And he was willing, even though he had already endured much for such a beautiful work, to be edited privately and publicly. His structure stood, as did the sentiment and integrity of his words—the rest was collaborative.

The written word is the edited word.

How does this change your perspective on writing and editing? How do the changes in the Declaration change the meaning of the document?


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