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On this holiday when we honor the Declaration of Independence it is interesting to go back to the original document and the story of its drafting, for it is a story that should be more widely known by all Americans.

The Drafts

Few people know the actual history of the Declaration, which actually underwent several revisions before Congress approved the document we all know and honor today. The story of those revisions is a fascinating look at American politics and also at the issues which divided Congress, and some cases continue to divide this country today.

There are three main drafts that most scholars consider relevant: Thomas Jefferson’s original language, the committee’s draft, and the final draft approved by Congress. Each version is slightly different than rest, reflecting compromises that needed to be made along with some important changes of language that strengthened the document.

For those who wish to explore this further, Duke University maintains a fascinating web site that contains the drafts, with each arranged so that you can compare them. It also has a brief section that outlines major differences. Most of what follows is based on research from that web site, although the analysis is my own unless otherwise cited.

The Opening

The most famous part of the Declaration–and one no doubt many of you reading this can recite from heart–are the opening words. Here is the final version that we all know:

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.

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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Here is Jefferson’s original draft:

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 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.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles and organizing it’s power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Starting with the first paragraph notice how it alone silences one myth about the Declaration, that Jefferson was the master wordsmith who gave the document its ringing language. In the rough draft above Jefferson’s language is stilted and wordy, sounding as if it came from an aristocrat rather than from the people.

The phrase “becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained” grates like fingers on a blackboard. It is not that Jefferson had a tin ear–far from it as we know all too well from his other writings. Here he was reflecting his class and his background.  Remember the rest of the drafting committee had not seen this, so it is pure unvarnished Jefferson. Think of it almost as a conversational Jefferson, thinking out loud in is his speaking voice.

The phrasing also alerts us to the well-known fact that Jefferson and many of those who attended the Continental Congress were the American equivalent of aristocrats–they were wealthy, educated landowners. So how did what most of us would consider an awful beginning end up with the ringing words we all know?

Here is where the committee draft comes in.  What you immediately see in the surviving copy of that draft is that they crossed out Jefferson’s stilted language and substituted the words we know today.

The Committee

Just to remind you, that committee consisted of Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The first three we all know, the last two are more obscure figures, but at the time of the drafting considered important enough to put on the committee.

Livingston was a New Yorker who is perhaps best remembered as the answer to a trivia question–which of the framers did not sign the Declaration? Livingston was recalled to his home state before he could participate in that famous moment when all the delegates took quill pens and etched their names into history. His most famous claim to fame is that as Jefferson’s minister to Napoleon he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.

Of the five, Roger Sherman was probably the closest to what we today would term the common people. He was largely self-educated until in his teenage years he was fortunate to be taken under the wing of a local minister who taught him grammar, mathematics, and philosophy.  At the beginning of the Revolution his fellow Connecticut Citizens voted him commissary to the state militia, which hints at Sherman’s personal qualities.

He was a delegate much-liked and respected at the convention in part because of his open personality, his honesty and his ability to get along with the many volatile personalities among the delegates. In many ways, he was a key member of the committee–in fact the kind of person you want on any committee–one who holds everyone together.

Preamble Changes

Although I have not had a chance to go over all the historical sources the wording changes in the opening sound to me like Benjamin Franklin, who, as we know, had a facility with language every bit as good as Jefferson’s.  I cannot imagine Jefferson using a phrase like “bands which have connected them.”

This leads us the critical, most important and most-quoted part of the Declaration, the sentence:

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.

Notice in Jefferson’s first draft this reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles and organizing it’s power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

From an editing perspective this is one mouthful of a sentence. One can imagine a fifth grade English teacher grading a sentence like that. It goes on and on for eight lines! William Faulkner, he of the famous long sentences, had nothing on Thomas Jefferson.

So, the first thing the committee did was to divide this long sentence–which is your classic example of a run-on sentence–into more manageable pieces. By doing so they gave each piece more weight and none received greater weight than the key sentence. Punctuation freaks will notice a simple, but important change: instead of Jefferson’s string of commas, they substitute semi-colons which help give the phrases more weight.

Jefferson’s famous phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” stays.  As people around the world have recognized, that ringing phrase has no peer. It may well be the most famous and quoted clause in the English language.

Wisely, the committee–and the delegates–did not choose to nit pick this one. As we all remember from our grade school history days, the phrase probably comes from John Locke, who wrote:

No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

The substitution of “pursuit of happiness” for property has probably been one of the most-commented-on and debated parts of the Declaration, that it seems superfluous to enter it again. Yet it is a change that cannot be stressed enough. It takes the Declaration to a higher ground, making the three-part phrase an epochal shift from the material (life), to the philosophical (liberty) to what can only be termed the spiritual (the pursuit of happiness).

It is noteworthy that one of the instances in which the Supreme Court directly cited that phrase “pursuit of happiness” was in the famous case of Loving v Virginia which overturned that state’s ban against interracial marriage.  Here is what the Court said in the opinion written by Justice Warren:

The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.

Government

Conservative scholars love to point out that thus far there has been no mention of government, but a reading of the text and the committee’s changes shows just what the framers really had in mind was not a limited government, but one responsive to the people. Admittedly, at those times there definition of “the people” was a bit limited, but the point of government serving ALL the people is the key.

Here is Jefferson:

That to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.

Here is the committee draft:

That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.

Notice they are the same, and remain so in the final document. This indicates there was a c0nsesnsus among the delegates about this concept. All believe that government exists to PROTECT those rights.  In The Strange Death of Liberal America I referred to this as a belief that government exists to keep the playing field level. I believe that is exactly what the framers had in mind.

The reason I believe that comes from the phrase that follows, “deriving their just power form the consent of the governed.” Note this very careful language, particularly the word “just power.” By that I believe the framers meant justice and all it entails. If, as the Declaration goes on to say, a government is no longer just, then the people have the right to reject it.

It is hard to believe that a “just government” is not one that keeps the playing field level. Anything else would mean that one class or group had more power than another. Thde Declaration says nothing about that fact that those who make more money are entitled to more rights or more leeway from government, or that allowing the rich to dominate the rest of us as some have preached, is for the good of the country.

If you are truly an Originalist then this important phrase does not say anything like what many would have us believe.  Its simple language hides a profound truth that we badly need to remember this Fourth of July: America was not founded on the presumption that government should tilt the playing field.

Remember that at this point technically America was still a colony and those who drafted the Declaration had broken with the mother country BECAUSE they felt that the Parliament and King in London no longer listened to them.  They believed the playing field had been tilted against the colonies by those in the mother country.

Other Changes

The Duke Center goes on to outline other changes to the drafts, among them being language pertaining to slavery. In his original draft Jefferson wrote:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.

That is as concise an objection to slavery as you are likely to find. That it came from the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, who fathered a child by his slave-mistress Sally Hemmings, is even more remarkable.  In fact this may be the strongest language in the Declaration–to “wage cruel war against human nature itself.”

Congress would delete these words, but the fact they were included in Jefferson’s draft makes you wonder what kind of document the Declaration might have been had they been included and how might American history have been different.

In a sense the drafting committee is interesting because it did not include a single member who was a strong advocate of slavery. Had there been one would the drafts have been different? The committee did not change Jefferson’s words, Congress did.

Colin Powell put it pretty bluntly in a discussion of the Declaration in a PBS documentary:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” In other words, you don’t have to prove them. It’s self-evident. Why is it self-evident? Came from God. They’re inalienable. Government secures them. Remarkable document. It didn’t apply to black folks.

The drafting committee was heavily stacked with anti-slavery men. Franklin would head the nation’s first anti-slavery group. Adams thought it an abomination.  Yet in this one area they found themselves overruled. In writing about the approval of the Declaration, Jefferson wrote:

The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures of the people of England were struck out lest they should give them offense. The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though the people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.

The Final Result

When you celebrate the Fourth of July you should remember that it was John Adams who suggested that along with the fireworks and other celebrations that he asked that the Declaration be read. It would be a good habit for us to resume. And as we read it we need to remember the true story of its drafting which enlightens us to the complexities of the document and its creation.

Above all, let us celebrate that this nation has survived another year.

Afterward:

For some reason this year the local fireworks seemed longer and more brilliant than usual. The grand finale lit up the sky as the explosions rumbled down the river valley. I heard on the radio that in this economic crisis some communities will not have fireworks.

That all the ones cited seemed to be rich or upper middle class made the situation even more ironic. Apparently these rich folks would rather keep their money than celebrate the Fourth in the fashion John Adams advocated.  Perhaps some them would do well to read the Declaration, but I doubt they will.

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