The Library of Congress helped the American people celebrate the Fourth of July this year with new insight into Thomas Jefferson’s thinking when he was penning the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.
On Friday, July 2, the Library announced the findings of its scientists in the Preservation, Research and Testing Division, who recently conducted hyperspectral imaging of Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and clearly confirmed past speculation that Jefferson made an interesting word correction during his writing of the document.
Jefferson originally had written the phrase “our fellow subjects.” But he apparently changed his mind. Heavily scrawled over the word “subjects” was an alternative, the word “citizens.”
The correction seems to illuminate an important moment for Jefferson and for a nation on the eve of breaking from monarchy: a moment when he reconsidered his choice of words and articulated the recognition that the people of the fledgling United States of America were no longer subjects of any nation, but citizens of an emerging democracy.
The correction occurs in the portion of the declaration that deals with U.S. grievances against King George III—in particular, his incitement of “treasonable insurrections.” While the specific sentence didn’t make it into the final draft, a similar phrase was retained, and the word “citizens” is used elsewhere in the final document. The sentence didn’t carry over, but the idea did.
Fenella France, a preservation scientist at the Library, conducted the hyperspectral imaging in the fall of 2009 and discovered a blurred word under “citizens.” France said, “It had been a spine-tingling moment when I was processing data late at night and realized there was a word underneath citizens. Then I began the tough process of extracting the differences between spectrally similar materials to elucidate the lost text.”
Hyperspectral imaging is the process of taking digital photos of an object using distinct portions of the visible and non-visible light spectrum, revealing what previously could not be seen by the human eye. The hyperspectral imaging system is located in the Library’s Optical Properties Laboratory, on the sub-basement level of the James Madison Building. Fascinating details of our historical heritage have been coming to light with the use of hyperspectral imaging. For instance, recent imaging of the heavily varnished and visually obscured 1791 Pierre L’Enfant Plan of Washington, D.C., has clearly revealed invisible streets and special locations, including the “President’s House” and “Congress’ House.”
Newspapers and broadcast outlets announced the Library’s findings on Saturday and Sunday of Independence Day weekend. From the front page of The Washington Post to an entertaining segment on Good Morning America, the story played widely throughout the country.
The word-correction has been suspected for some time by scholars. In “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1: 1760–1776”, Julian P. Boyd wrote “TJ originally wrote ‘fellow-subjects,’ copying the term from the corresponding passage in the first page of the First Draft of the Virginia Constitution; then, while the ink was still wet on the ‘Rough draught’ he expunged or erased ‘subjects’ and wrote ‘citizens’ over it.”