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Editing the Declaration of Independence
“We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable…”
That was the original line in the Declaration of Independence – before a team of editors got their hands on it.
Thomas Jefferson is widely credited as the author of our nation’s founding pronouncement. In reality, the declaration came about in much the same way as most important projects in business and politics – with a lot of contributing voices and a lot of edits.
In June of 1776, as the Continental Congress debated an independent United States, it created the Committee of Five, a team of delegates to prepare an official Declaration of Independence to be sent to the king.
The committee functioned like an editorial review board consisting of Founding Fathers like Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
Jefferson was tapped to write the first draft, which he set about doing from his second floor lodgings at Jacob Graff’s house at Seventh and Market.
Like many high-stakes projects, there was a focused review process – which wasn’t always followed.
Rather than sharing his “rough draught” with the entire committee, Jefferson first shared it with Adams, who made a few small changes. Then the full committee took a red pen to the page.
It was Franklin who changed “sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident.” In the recent Ken Burns’ documentary Franklin, historians note the genius in this edit, a rhetorical device that repositions independence from something important to something obvious.
That single edit showed Franklin’s understanding of the declaration’s true audience. Jefferson and company were writing to King George, but they were trying to convince their fellow colonists (and the French) that a revolt was justified and worth supporting.
All told, there were 86 edits to the document, slashing about a quarter of its overall content. Most changes were made by the Congress, including eliminating a powerful passage condemning slavery.
Records from the time say Jefferson grew increasingly salty as delegates continued to pile on edits (who can blame him?). One change even slipped in after the final proof.