By GERARD W. GAWALT
Settled in his second-floor lodgings at Jacob Graff's house on Seventh and Market streets in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson set out to apply his knowledge about individual freedom, natural order and British oppression to the writing of a Declaration of Independence.
Had Jefferson known how important this document would become, he undoubtedly would have been more careful in preserving the precursor documents involved in its writing. As it is, historians are left to ponder the small paper trail that led to this defining moment in U.S. history.
A junior delegate from the self-proclaimed state of Virginia, Jefferson would have preferred in June 1776 to return to Williamsburg to help write the state's new constitution. But following the introduction of Virginia's resolutions calling for an independent United States, the Continental Congress, anticipating a favorable vote, appointed a committee of five delegates -- Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin -- to prepare a Declaration of Independence for Congress.
Jefferson was not the youngest member of the committee; that was Livingston. Nor was he the oldest; that was Franklin. Nor was he the most experienced revolutionary penman; that was Adams, who had written many revolutionary essays and state papers, including the Novanglus essays and Thoughts on Government. Jefferson would not even have been on the committee if Richard Henry Lee had not pulled senior rank and returned to Virginia to work on the state constitution. But Jefferson was from the key state of Virginia, and he had a natural felicity of writing.
Jefferson was assigned to draft the document either by the committee, by Adams or by Congress -- another question often debated by historians.
Drawing on earlier writings, including George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, his own drafts of the Virginia Constitution and Summary View of the Rights of British Americans, Jefferson produced in just a few days the first, or composition draft, of the Declaration of Independence. He then made a clean, or "fair," copy of the composition document, which became the basis of the document labeled by Jefferson many years later as "Independence-Declaration original Rough draught" ("draft").
Both the fragment and the draft are considered "Top Treasures" of the Library and are on view through Sept. 4 in the "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" exhibition in the Thomas Jefferson Building. (For exhibition information, call (202) 707-3834. The documents are also available on the Library's Web.)
In June, the Library (with a generous grant from the Daniel J. Boorstin Fund) and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation reissued an updated edition of Julian Boyd's 1943 Library of Congress publication, The Evolution of the Text of the Declaration of Independence (pictured), edited by the author of this article. Readers can examine color photographs of all of the variant drafts and copies of the Declaration of Independence leading to the final engrossed copy and read a document-by-document scholarly analysis of the drafting of the Declaration.
The draft of the Declaration was revised first by Adams and Franklin, and then by the full committee. A total of 47 alterations, including the insertion of three complete paragraphs, were made to the text before it was presented to Congress on June 28. After voting for independence on July 2, Congress continued to refine the document, making 39 additional revisions to the committee draft before its final adoption on the morning of July 4.
The draft shows the multiplicity of corrections, additions and deletions that were made at each step. Although most of the alterations are in Jefferson's handwriting (Jefferson later indicated which changes he believed were made by Adams and Franklin), he felt slighted by the way Congress rewrote the manuscript. In a consoling letter of July 21, 1776, the state's senior delegate, Richard Henry Lee, wrote to Jefferson that he wished that "the manuscript had not been mangled as it is." In an 1823 letter to Madison, Jefferson wrote that, at the time, "during the debate, I was sitting by Dr. Franklin and he observed that I was writhing a little under the acrimonious criticisms" of Congress. In fact, as Congress neared completion of the document by altering nearly all of his last paragraph, Jefferson could only write in the margin "a different phraseology inserted." Jefferson remained bitter about the changes made to the Declaration of Independence right up to his death. His autobiography was a major effort to set the record straight on its writing.
Within a few decades, even the major characters, including Jefferson and Adams, could not remember who wrote what, when Congress approved the Declaration, or even when the Declaration was signed. Small wonder, then, that scholars have puzzled over the text for nearly 200 years, assigning authorship here, ascribing a deletion there, arguing over the weather and time of day Congress agreed to the Declaration and the sequencing of drafts and copies.
The discovery in 1947 by Boyd, librarian at Princeton University, of the fragment -- a previously unknown draft of the Declaration of Independence -- shed new light on earlier studies of the Declaration's composition. The brief, but critically important, fragment had been preserved unrecognized in the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress until Boyd, the newly named documentary editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, reexamined primary documents. The fragment had been mistakenly filed under a September 1777 date with materials related to congressional consideration in 1776 of Gen. John Sullivan's threatened resignation of his commission to the Continental Army. Jefferson had also drafted a resignation acceptance on the same page, turning the fragment 180 degrees to do so (see lower portion of Photo 1).
Heavily edited in Jefferson's clear, precise hand, the fragment proved to be a key component in unraveling the story of the writing of the Declaration. The existence of the fragment confirmed the view of those historians who had argued that a heavily edited draft must have preceded the copy Jefferson had endorsed as the original rough draft.
That the fragment was written before the draft and was then corrected and copied into it was exactingly explained by Boyd in 1950. "The Fragment contains several words and passages that are crossed out; none of these was copied into the 'Rough draught' (or true fair copy)," wrote Boyd in the first volume of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. "The Fragment also contains, in its undeleted 148 words that were copied in the 'Rough draught,' 43 words caretted and interlined; none of these was so treated in the 'Rough draught.'"
Several additional and equally elaborate explanations were provided by Boyd before he stated his opinion that "the most conclusive evidence" can be derived from the fact that Jefferson wrote the paragraph on the top of the half leaf of paper and left the remainder blank for subsequent corrections or drafts. The final two lines in the fragment -- "these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, & manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unjust unfeeling brethren" -- were composed in this blank space before being interlined above in the drafted paragraph. In late July 1776, Jefferson used the remainder of this blank half leaf to draft a resolution accepting the proffered resignation of Gen. Sullivan, who, insulted when Gen. Horatio Gates was appointed commander of the American Army in Canada on June 17, 1776, wished to resign his commission. Congress allowed Sullivan to withdraw his resignation and to continue to serve his country; later he was captured by the British at the time of their victory on Long Island. Jefferson then made notes on the back of this sheet about a horse stable at the Penn family estate in Philadelphia (see Photo 2). He later used the notes to build a stable during the reconstruction of Monticello.
An analysis of the text of the fragment reveals the process of textual preparation of the Declaration of Independence:
Half of the first line of text after "in po[wer]" is missing along the broken top edge of the manuscript.
- Benjamin Franklin, examining the text after Jefferson wrote it, deleted the phrase "deluge us in blood," replacing it with the words "destroy us," which were the words first written by Jefferson in lines two and three of the draft.
- The phrase "in a separate state" in line 11 was first changed to "separately" by Jefferson in the draft and subsequently to "apart from them" in both the fragment and the draft. John Adams's copy was made before the interdelineation of "apart from them."
- In line 12 Jefferson changed the word "pronounces" to "denounces" and the phrase "everlasting Adieu" to "eternal separation" in both the fragment and the draft. Adams also made his copy after these changes were completed by Jefferson. The alterations in lines 11 and 12 indicate that Jefferson continued to edit the Declaration even as he made his fair copy.
- Lines 13 and 14 were interlined into the text of the paragraph above. In order to focus attention on the transgressions of the King and not the British people, Congress later deleted this entire paragraph from the Declaration of Independence, retaining only the phrase "acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation" in lines 11 and 12.
Although the fragment is small, it reveals just how diligently Jefferson labored over the writing of the Declaration. Moreover, the fragment, when viewed in conjunction with Jefferson's all-encompassing "original Rough draught," reinforces the historical conclusion that the Declaration of Independence was not easily nor individually achieved, but sprang from many revolutionary ideas and was the cooperative effort of many revolutionary leaders.
Jefferson's Exact Words and Deletions: Composition Draft of the Declaration
re-established them in po[wer]... <this conduct and> at this very time too, they are permitting their <sovereign> chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our <own> common blood but Scotch & foreign mercenaries to <destroy us> invade and deluge us in blood. <this is too much to be borne even by relations. enough then be it to say, we are now done with them.> these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, & manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unfeeling brethren! we must endeavor to forget our former love for them and to hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. we might have been a <great> free & a <happy> great people together, but a communica<ed>ion of <happiness> grandeur & of <grandeur> freedom it seems is be<neath> low their dignity. <we will climb them the roads to glory & happiness apart> be it so, since, they will have it: the road to <glory & to> happiness & to glory is open to us too, we will climb it <in a separate state> apart from them & acquiesce in the necessity which <pro> denounces our <everlasting Adieu> eternal separation.
<these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, & manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unjust unfeeling brethren.>
Mr. Gawalt is a specialist in early American history at the Library of Congress.