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Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Whispers of independence were floating around the colonies ever since the shot heard “round the world” was fired in Lexington, Massachusetts. As winter turned from spring to summer, what had once been a whispering desire for freedom was quickly became a demanding call to separate the colonies from Great Britain and the monarchical tyranny of King George III. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution to the Second Continental Congress urging the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. Lee wrote the following statement found in the Papers of the Continental Congress,

“Resolved, 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. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”

Below Lee’s resolution in the Papers of the Continental Congress is a handwritten note calling for the formation of a committee “to prepare a Declaration.” Four days later, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston were assigned the task of writing the Declaration of Independence.

Although five people were assigned to the committee, Jefferson did the majority of the writing on his own. In his autobiography Jefferson offers a rather humble explanation for why he wrote alone. Jefferson states, “The committee for drawing the declaration of Independence desired me to do it. It was accordingly done, and being approved by them, I reported it to the house on Friday the 28th of June when it was read and ordered to lie on the table.”

In the seventeen days between June 11 and June 28, 1776, Thomas Jefferson worked in veiled secrecy on what would become one of America’s most important documents. Desiring some peace, Jefferson rented two rooms from Jacob Graff Jr., a bricklayer from Philadelphia who owned a house on Market Street. During this time, Jefferson made a few drafts of the Declaration of Independence. All that remains of the first draft is a cut fragment that was found behind a picture frame in 1947. This first draft now lives in the archives at the Library of Congress with the rest of the Jefferson Papers Collection. This fragment shows the process Jefferson went through when writing the Declaration of Independence; there are lots of crossed out sections, scribbles, and errors. The copy of the draft in the Mercury Collection is one that followed this initial draft. After Jefferson worked out what he wanted to say, he made an unknown number of clean copies to be shared with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and other members of the committee so they could add their thoughts and approve what Jefferson had written. The majority of the 86 edits seen on this copy of the draft are in the handwriting of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. At a later date, most likely in the 1800s, Thomas Jefferson went back to his draft and annotated in the margins which changes were suggested by Adams and Franklin. Jefferson referred to this copy of the Declaration as the “original rough draught.” After the rest of the committee read the draft and provided their input, Jefferson made a clean copy of the document, which included some of the committee’s edits, to be submitted to Congress. This version of the draft, known as the Fair Copy, was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776.

As one can imagine, Thomas Jefferson was highly critical of the changes being made to the document he wrote. Most of the changes seen on the copy in the Mercury Collection made by Franklin and Adams are rather minor. Changes such as capitalization, punctuation, inserting a forgotten word, or rephrasing certain sentences were suggested by Franklin and Adams. Most of the edits on this “original rough draught” are additive, rather than subtractive. However, the edits made to the Fair Copy draft by Congress were much more extensive. The changes Jefferson fought the hardest was the removal of an entire paragraph on the third page of the Declaration that attributed responsibility of the slave trade in the colonies to King George III. In his Autobiography, Jefferson explains why this passage was cut from the Declaration of Independence:

“The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”

While Jefferson was understandably disappointed that this paragraph did not make the final cut, he knew that the Declaration of Independence would never pass a vote if he did not compromise with the Southern states on this issue. He was seemingly still bitter about this fact later in his life though, as evidenced by the above quote from his autobiography which he wrote nearly 45 years after writing the Declaration of Independence. While it is indeed disappointing that this paragraph was left out, sometimes compromise is a necessary part of government. Although Thomas Jefferson may have thought the removal of this paragraph was cowardly, the rest of his Declaration remained assertive, strong, and decisive and continues to be a sturdy foundational document for the United States of America hundreds of years later.

Below is a picture of the draft of the Declaration of Independence from Mercury One’s collection. The draft of the Declaration of Independence that is housed in the Mercury Collection is a steel plate facsimile engraving from 1829. The engraving was made by Charles Toppan, an active 19th-century engraver working in Philadelphia. The facsimile was printed to be included in the book Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies: From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, which was compiled and edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph and published in 1829, the same year the facsimile was printed.

Draft of Declaration of Independence

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Works Cited:

Jefferson, Thomas. Autobiography. 1821. p. 28

Jefferson, Thomas. Autobiography. 1821. p. 33

Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 38 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904-1937. Vol. 5. p. 425

Library of Congress. Exhibitions. Thomas Jefferson. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffdec.html

Randolph, Thomas Jefferson. Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies: From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville, Va. F. Carr. December 31, 1829. Vol. I. p. xiv

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