Happy July 4th, everyone! Independence Day. This is one of my favorite holidays. I do love our country so much and, while we certainly have had and continue to have our problems, we are a great country with a great heritage.
Which is why the picnics and parades and fireworks on July 4.
As I write this on July 2, it was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress formally declared independence. It was two days later, on July 4, that the Congress approved the final text of the Declaration.
It had taken a few weeks and several versions to get there.
Apparently, the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson was known for having a way with words in his writing (you never know when and for what your writing skills might be called upon!). On June 11, Jefferson, along with four others, was commissioned to draft a statement justifying the colonies’ break from Great Britain — a Declaration of Independence. The Committee of Five included Jefferson (VA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), John Adams (MA), Robert Livingston (NY), and Roger Sherman (CT). Jefferson wrote the first draft, then Franklin and Adams acted as first readers, making some corrections that Jefferson incorporated before the Declaration was presented to the Continental Congress for approval.
The process of consideration and revision of Jefferson’s declaration (including Adams’ and Franklin’s corrections) continued on July 3 and into the late morning of July 4, during which Congress deleted and revised some one-fifth of its text. … The delegates made no changes to that key preamble, however, and the basic document remained Jefferson’s words. Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence later on the Fourth of July.Source: History: Writing of Declaration of Independence
What was that one-fifth of the text that was revised or deleted? Constitutionfacts.com gives a little info:
Jefferson was quite unhappy about some of the edits made to his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. He had originally included language condemning the British promotion of the slave trade (even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner). This criticism of the slave trade was removed in spite of Jefferson’s objections.Source: Constitutionfacts.com/Declaration of Independence
In addition, the Congress made 86 other changes before finally adopting the approximately 1,320-word Declaration.
Jefferson later wrote about the process in 1823:
… the other members of the committee “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught [sic]. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections. … I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress.”Source: National Archives: America’s Founding Documents
The National Archives site quoted above goes on to explain, “Jefferson’s rough draft, however, with changes made by Franklin and Adams, as well as Jefferson’s own notes of changes by the Congress, is housed at the Library of Congress.”
This is every writer and editor’s dream. To see the actual text and edits of any great work. Well, we can take a look courtesy of the Library of Congress website, listed under “The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress,” and titled, “Thomas Jefferson, June 1776, Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence.”
In this link are photos of four hand-written pages with scratch outs and rewrites. You can see, for example, on page 1, how the words “a people” were changed to “one people.” You can see that the next entire line is scratched out, replaced with what did become the final words, “… dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume …” And the first line of the next paragraph, to me one of the most beautifully written in all of literature, appears to have been edited several times to get it just right: “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.”
Note that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” remained unedited.
Who knows what discussions occurred as those Continental Congress delegates edited by committee over those two days in 1776? (And if you’ve ever sat in on a meeting where an entire group is attempting to edit a document, you know how frustrating that can be.) Why did they make certain cuts? What were the compromises? Why didn’t they understand freedom truly for ALL people? What subtle wording changes occurred? Indeed, Robert Livingston, one of the Committee of Five, did not ultimately sign the Declaration, believing it was too soon to declare independence.
But on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress finalized the document, then on August 2, 1776, 56 men signed it, knowing that they were putting their lives literally on the line by doing so. This group of men, as imperfect as they were, believed in freedom. They had the vision to create a nation with founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and the documents they created formed our United States of America.
Odd fact: Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence.
So celebrate today! Wave your flag and thank the founders of the Declaration of Independence for their vision. It laid the foundation that we should continue to cherish, even as we as a nation have been adjusting and changing over the last 246 years. Let us celebrate our freedom.
The Franklin Institute: Benjamin Franklin and the Declaration of Independence)
History: Writing of Declaration of Independence
National Archives: America’s Founding Documents
Thomas Jefferson, June 1776, Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence