Sunday, June 2, 2019

Episode 099: Declaring Independence

Last week we looked at the politics and voting for independence.  Today I want to take a closer look at drafting the document itself.  Most people regard the Declaration of Independence, along with the US Constitution as probably the most important documents from the founding of the United States.  The Declaration is America’s birth certificate, marking not only the date our country was founded, but providing an explanation as to why it should be founded.  The radical language of the document was so controversial, that the US State Department at one time banned its distribution at certain embassies, lest it encourage other countries to revolt against their leaders.

The Committee

As I said last week, in June 1776, after Richard Henry Lee introduced the resolution from Virginia that:
These United colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Congress put off a debate on that question so delegates could work with their local governments to get approval.  While some were trying to build the political consensus, Congress created a committee to begin drafting the actual declaration, so that they would be ready if and when the colony’s gave their approval.

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson review a draft
of the declaration (from Wikimedia)
The Declaration Committee consisted of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin, who supported independence but who came from Pennsylvania which still instructed delegates to oppose it, Roger Sherman of Connecticut who supported independence, Robert Livingston, of New York, who opposed independence, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia who also supported independence.  Jefferson had just returned to Philadelphia a few weeks earlier following the death of his mother.  He was one of the younger and quieter members of Congress, but also had a good reputation as an effective writer.

The committee discussed the matter and decided to have Jefferson put together a first draft.  At the time, no one really thought that drafting the declaration itself would be a big deal.  That is probably why they dumped the job on Jefferson as a junior member.  The big deal was voting for independence, not the actual wording on the piece of paper.  It would only be decades later when Jefferson used it to his political advantage that the drafting of the document took on more importance.  Also, to be fair, Jefferson’s ability to lay out the cause for independence in such an articulate and elegant way lent itself to raising the importance of the document.

Many years later, John Adams reminisced about circumstances of drafting the declaration.  You have to remember that by the time of this writing, Adams and Jefferson had been political rivals for many years and Adams had always seemed to resent how much credit Jefferson had received for his contribution to the declaration.  So Adams may have had cause to make himself sound more gracious and involved in the draft than he may actually have been.  In a letter from Adams, to Timothy Pickering, dated Aug. 6, 1822, Adams wrote:
You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of the committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence? I answer: It was the Frankfort advice, to place Virginia at the head of everything. Mr. Richard Henry Lee might be gone to Virginia, to his sick family, for aught I know, but that was not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's appointment. There were three committees appointed at the same time, one for the Declaration of Independence, another for preparing articles of confederation, and another for preparing a treaty to be proposed to France. Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Confederation, and it was not thought convenient that the same person should be upon both. Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation - not even Samuel Adams was more so - that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draft, I suppose because we were the two first on the list. 
Thomas Jefferson
(from Wikimedia)
 The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, 'I will not,' 'You should do it.' 'Oh! no.' 'Why will you not? You ought to do it.' 'I will not.' 'Why?' 'Reasons enough.' 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.' 'Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.'
A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over. I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal, for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity, only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.
We reported it to the committee of five. It was read, and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticized anything. We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting, as he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of it, as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if anything in it was. I have long wondered that the original draft had not been published. I suppose the reason is the vehement philippic against Negro slavery.
As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams.
Notice that last paragraph where Adams adds a jab at Jefferson about how unoriginal the declaration was.  Many of Jefferson's opponents had criticized Jefferson's lack of originality and the fact that he borrowed heavily from other contemporary writings.  Jefferson addresses this criticism by agreeing with it in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee dated May 8, 1825:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
Jefferson claimed he did not rely on any particular documents while working on his first draft in June 1776.  But he was in regular correspondence with colleagues in Virginia who were working on the Virginia Constitution and Bill of rights.  In fact, Jefferson was rather upset that many of the more senior members of the delegation had returned to Virginia for the important work on the State Constitution, while Jefferson was stuck in Philadelphia doing this side work. As a result, we see a great many similarities between these documents.

According the Adams’ later account, Jefferson finished his first draft in just a day or two.  He had Adams and Franklin look at it before introducing it to the full Committee.  The Committee made a few changes to Jefferson’s draft, but largely sent it to Congress as written.  Congress, however, would want to make more changes.

Congress Makes Changes

On June 28, the Committee submitted the Declaration to Congress for review.  Congress made quite a number of edits. One of the most famous, or infamous, was the removal of a section condemning the King for the institution of slavery:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
In the end, Congress removed this section.  Sure, some colonies had attempted to end or limit the slave trade, and the Privy Council in London did not allow it.  But many colonies happily supported slavery.  Many have pointed to the removal of this paragraph as the height of hypocrisy.  A document proclaiming the inalienable rights of man should not remove a passage condemning slavery.  But the reality was that the King had never forced slavery on the colonists.  The colonists had willingly participated.  Condemning the King for making them have slaves just seemed a little too far fetched.  Beyond that, there certainly was a hypocrisy among many delegates who supported the principles of equality and inalienable rights but who had no interest in extending those rights to the slaves who worked for them.

Congress made many other changes to wording, some to make other delegates happy, others to improve the flow of the document.  Jefferson was not happy about all the changes to his work.  He sent letters to many friends with his original draft, asking whether they preferred his version or the final version.

Congress continued to make a few minor alterations and deletions on July 2, 3, and the morning of the 4th.  Late in the morning of July 4, Congress approved the final wording of the declaration.

Distributing the Document

At the end of the day on July 4, the draft committee took the manuscript copy to John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress.  Keep in mind that what went to the printer was still a draft copy.  The final engrossed copy did not exist yet.

Dunlap Declaration (from Wikimedia)
Mr. Dunlap apparently worked through the night making an estimated 150-200 copies of the declaration for distribution. On the morning of July 5, Congress began distributing copies to various committees, assemblies, and to the commanders of the Continental troops.

The first public announcement came on Friday, July 5, when a German language paper in Philadelphia apparently scooped everyone to announce that Congress had adopted the Declaration.  The next day, July 6, the Philadelphia Evening Post published the full text of the Declaration.

The first known public reading did not come until Monday July 8, when Col. John Nixon of the Philadelphia Committee of Safety read the Declaration to a crowd in front of Independence Hall. According to local lore, with questionable authenticity, the State House Bell rang all day in celebration.  That bell later became known as the Liberty Bell.  That same day, public readings took place in Easton, Pennsylvania and Trenton, New Jersey.

On July 9, George Washington assembled his army in New York and read the Declaration of Independence to the soldiers and assembled civilians.  It provoked such excitement that a mob formed to tear down a statue of King George III.  Later they melted the lead from the statue to make bullets to fire back at the British Army.

About two weeks after its famous vote, Congress received word that New York, finally authorized its delegates to support independence, Congress made one final change, adding the line at the beginning of the Declaration, “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America.”  It was only then, that the Congress ordered a formal engrossed copy that all the delegates could sign.

There is some question as to who actually wrote the words on the parchment that we today consider the original Declaration of Independence.  But based on handwriting analysis, most historians believe the draftsman was Timothy Matlack , of Pennsylvania. Matlack was, at the time, a clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, Charles Thomson.

Signing the Declaration by J. Trumbull (from Wikimedia)
With the engrossed version complete, Congress laid out the copy for signing on August 2.  John Hancock famously signed his name the largest and in the top center.  Several members who had approved the Declaration were absent. George Wythe signed on August 27. On September 4, Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, and Oliver Wolcott signed. Matthew Thornton signed on November 19.  Delaware Delegate Thomas McKean did not sign at all in 1776.  It is not clear exactly when he got around to signing, but possibly not until 1781.  He had a good excuse for some delay.  After voting for independence McKean took up command of a militia to march off to defend New York against the British invasion.  But he was back in Congress by 1777. It is unclear why he did not get around to signing for another four years.

Two delegates, John Dickinson and Robert Livingston (who was on the committee to draft the document) never signed the Declaration at all.  Another delegate, Robert Morris, who had opposed independence in debate signed anyway saying "I am not one of those politicians that run testy when my own plans are not adopted. I think it is the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead."  Several other delegates who were not present for the voting on independence, nevertheless signed it at a later date.

No one from the Continental Congress, nor anyone else, every bothered to send a copy to the King nor anyone else in London.  Admiral Howe and General Howe, at the time with the British fleets off the coast of New York, sent two copies of the original Dunlap version back to London.  One was with a letter dated July 28 and the other dated August 11.  The letters don’t say how exactly the British Army received them, but it does say they fell into their hands by accident.  The Declaration was not a petition, nor was it specifically directed to any officials.  It was a declaration to the world that the former British colonies in North America were now free and independent states.  As such, they had no duty to inform anyone in London about their activities.

The Declaration

I will go into more detail next week on the details in the Declaration itself.  Congress made all sorts of declarations that have not been so memorable and repeated.  While the significance of independence was a big leap, Many delegates to the Congress did not consider the document itself to be that big a deal.  They considered the vote for independence to be a big deal, but the exact wording in the document itself, not so much.

It was, of course, Jefferson’s brilliant wording that made it such a memorable document.  When I quoted Jefferson a few minutes ago, he himself admitted that he was not putting down new ideas on paper.  These were ideas almost everyone in Congress already believed.  It was this widely held consensus that Jefferson sought to articulate in summary fashion.

As widely accepted as the principles were in America, however, these ideas were shocking to those in Europe.  Sure, many social contract theorists had spoken about these ideas in abstract.  But no one in Europe had seriously considered removing their monarchy and replacing it with a republic that would better implement the will of the people.

What made the document such a milestone in world history was the combination of being an articulate explanation of these ideals that were so radical to European ears, along with the fact that the Americans were actually in the process of implementing those ideas into a real government.  This was the concept that made the Revolution so revolutionary.

It seems though, that no one at the time seemed even to dream of its future impact on the world.  For the moment, they saw it as an important document that formally announced the goal of independence and which would hopefully assist in the war effort.

Next week: We will take a closer look at the actual words in the Declaration, and what they mean.

- - -

Next  Episode 100: The Declaration of Independence

Previous Episode 98: Voting for Independence

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Further Reading


Declaration of Independence (full text):

Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence:

Happy Independence Day: Which Day Is It?

Heintze, James The Declaration of Independence: First Public Readings:

George Washington Reads the Declaration of Independence:

9 Things You May Not Know About the Declaration of Independence:

Declaration Fact Sheet:

PODCAST Covart, Liz “Episode 141, A Declaration in Draft” Ben Franklin’s World (online recommendation of the week)

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 5, June 5 - Oct. 8, 1776, Gov’t Printing Office, 1904.

Becker, Carl L. Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1922.

Dwight, Nathaniel The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Harper & brothers, 1840.

Force, Peter American Archives, Fifth Series, Vol 1, M. St. Claire Clarks, 1837.

Goodrich, Charles A. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Mather, 1840.

Linn, William The Life of Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of Independence, and Third President of the United States, Andrus, Woodruff, & Gauntlett, 1843

Lossing, Benson J. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence. The Declaration Historically Considered, Evans, Stoddart & Co. 1870.

StillĂ©, Charles The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732-1808,  Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891.

Tyler, Moses, C. The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, Vol. 2, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, Basic Books, 2013.

De Bolla, Peter The Fourth of July: And the Founding of America, Harry N. Abrams, 2008.
 (Book recommendation of the week).

Ellis, Joseph What did the Declaration Declare? St. Martin's Press, 1999 (Book recommendation of the week).

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Hogeland, William Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776 Simon & Schuster, 2010.

McCullough, David John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Ryerson, Richard Alan The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765-1776, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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