Editing made Declaration even better

Published Jun. 29, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Thomas Jefferson held those truths to be "sacred and undeniable," but Benjamin Franklin, acting as his editor, struck that phrase and made the truths "self-evident."

Anyone who has ever put words to paper and then suffered the frustration of seeing someone change them, knows how Jefferson must have felt when the Continental Congress worked over his draft of the Declaration of Independence.

For five days, starting today, the American public gets to see what was done. Jefferson's original draft, with his words crossed out and substitutes written atop them or in the margins, goes on display at the Library of Congress. The document once was on permanent display, but experts felt light was damaging it. So it has rarely been seen since World War II.

Also on display, for the first time ever, will be the only surviving fragment of Jefferson's earliest known draft, on which he labored in solitude in June 1776, writing with a quill on linen-type paper.

Library manuscript historian Gerard Gawalt says about 25 percent of Jefferson's original words were changed _ either deleted or replaced.

"Even Jefferson's greatest defenders have said most of the changes were vast improvements," Gawalt said. He said the Continental Congress turned an A paper into an A-plus paper, a stirring revolutionary document full of "obvious hyperbole."

All told, 86 changes, big and small, were made _ 47 by a committee composed of Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, then 39 others by the Continental Congress, working over the document on July 2 and 3 and the morning of the Fourth, when it was adopted by unanimous vote.

Jefferson used both "states" and "colonies"; the Continental Congress went with "states."

A Jeffersonian paragraph denouncing the slave trade (but not slavery) was deleted. So was one denouncing the British people for not coming to the aid of their American cousins.

Jefferson took the changes none too happily. "Like any author, he felt his writing was better than others' suggestions," Gawalt said.

Adams defended Jefferson's work while Jefferson stood by, writing onto his draft the revisions approved by the Congress.

"By the time they got to the last paragraph, Jefferson had clearly become upset," Gawalt said. "Instead of writing in the changes, he just wrote in the margin, "A different phraseology inserted.' "

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