In scarcely more than 1,300 words, the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence announced "to our British brethren" that we'll be just fine on our own, thank you. We have plenty of lumber and farmland, and "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."
The Declaration is obviously one of the most carefully studied documents in human history, so it's far above my poor power to add to what's already been published regarding Thomas Jefferson's word selection. The selection of Jefferson to write it, on the other hand, was less obvious in 1776 than it appears in hindsight.
Yes, he went on to be president, but at the time he was just 33, the second-youngest among the delegation and, as a sign of his undeveloped political stature, had not been invited to either the first or the second of the Continental Congresses. (He eventually made it to Philadelphia as a replacement delegate in 1775, when Peyton Randolph, one of America's forgotten early leaders -- and, as it happened, Jefferson's cousin -- was summoned back to Virginia. Randolph died just months later, and Jefferson was there to stay.)
Jefferson was more a Renaissance man than a statesman -- a gifted writer, fluent in at least five languages, a student of science, religion, law, math and architecture. But he wasn't a noticeably impressive orator. (John Adams later wrote of his friend, "Mr. Jefferson had been now about a Year a Member of Congress, but [during] the whole Time I satt with him, [I] never heard him utter three Sentences together.") Jefferson's reputation as a political figure rested almost fully on his short tenure in Virginia's legislature, his fast friendship with Adams, and his 1774 authorship of "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," a sort of predecessor polemic.
It is a far less stirring, and more deferential, essay: Resolved, that it be an instruction to the said deputies, when assembled in general congress with the deputies from the other states of British America, to propose to the said congress that an humble and dutiful address be presented to his majesty, begging leave to lay before him, as chief magistrate of the British empire, the united complaints of his majesty's subjects ...
More historically sweeping than its 1776 counterpart, it conveys in 6,700 words the same concepts Jefferson communicated two years later, in just a few elegant paragraphs: When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them ...
Jefferson's second draft, if you will, is "perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature," writes historian Garry Wills. It is also -- as with Shakespeare, as with Lincoln -- somewhat dependent on works that came before it. "Certain unalienable rights" sounds a bit like George Mason's "certain inherent natural rights." That the government should take care to protect our "life, liberty and estate" comes from John Locke in the 1600s. Philosopher Richard Cumberland had written that promoting our communal well-being is essential to the "pursuit of our own happiness." And the "Free and Independent States" language comes straight from the June 7, 1776 "Lee Resolution" that prompted the Declaration.
If Jefferson was not immune from some light philosophical borrowing, his Declaration was not immune from some heavy editorial scalping. The Congress deleted 630 words, and added 146 of its own. They debated the tone and organization of the piece, of course, but also the words themselves, partly because English was not so standardized in the 18th century: "They argued at length over whether [to] use 'independent' or 'independant,' 'inalienable' or 'unalienable,'" writes Bill Bryson. "Anything to do with language exercised their interests greatly -- we might almost say disproportionately."
Jefferson, reacting in a manner familiar to this writer and every other, complained that his editors "mangled" his wordsmithing "much for the worse." But U.S. historian Carl L. Becker, and most who have admired the document's cadence, clarity and style over the last 237 years, conclude that "Congress left the Declaration better than it found it."
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625. First Published June 30, 2013 12:00 AM