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Subject to Change

Recent hyperspectral imaging of Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence has clearly confirmed past speculation that Jefferson made an interesting word correction during his writing of the document, according to scientists in the Library of Congress’ Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD). Jefferson originally had written the phrase “our fellow-subjects.” But he apparently changed his mind. Over the word “subjects” he inked an alternative, the word “citizens.”

A series of images showing the word "citizens" analyzed under various wavelengths, with certain images enhanced by computer to make the underlying word "subjects" more apparent. 2010. Preservation Directorate. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available. Thomas Jefferson. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-88053 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: PRES FILE - JEFFERSON, THOMAS [item] [P&P]

The correction seems to illuminate an important moment for Jefferson and for a nation on the eve of breaking from monarchical rule: 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 grievances against King George III, in particular, the king’s incitement of “treasonable insurrections.” While that 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 scientist in PRTD, 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. 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.”

The Thomas Jefferson word correction had been suspected for some time by scholars. In “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1: 1760-1776” (Princeton University Press, 1950), 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.”

The Library is home to the papers of Thomas Jefferson, in addition to his reconstructed library, the foundation that the Library of Congress was built on.

Imagination and vision played critical roles in the creative act of forming a self-governing United States of America. The collections of the Library are unquestionably the world’s best source for documenting that process. In addition to the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, the institution holds documents relating to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all of which can be found in the online exhibition “Creating the United States.”