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A Geek's Fourth of July: Reading the Declaration of Independence

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Not one for grilling or fireworks, I spent some time yesterday reading the Declaration of Independence. Actually, I dove into more than the Declaration itself; I also read Jefferson's original draft and the edits made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin before the committee got their grubby colonial hands on it.

It's always fascinating to return to something that everyone claims to cherish and feigns familiarity with, but that is simultaneously so apotheosized and abstracted as to become cold and inanimate.

Jefferson's original draft is anything but exsanguinated, though. It's useful to compare what he wrote with the way that Congress ended up softening the content and the tone in both small and large ways.

As an example, Jefferson wrote "Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; & such is now the Necessity which constrains them to expunge their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great Britain is a History of unremitting Injuries and Usurpations..."

Congress changed "expunged" to "alter" and "unremitting" to "repeated" in the final draft. A small lawyerly detail but revealing nonetheless.

A more telling excision was the deletion of pretty much the entire section below:

At this very time too they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch & foreign mercenaries to invade & destroy us. These facts have given the last step to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to forget our former love for them, and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have been a free and a great people together, but a communication of grandeur & of freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it.

It's clearly not as muscular as the final draft. When you read this, though, you can feel Jefferson's blood boiling over, and also his palpable, Hamletian pain at the separation reflected in complex, nuanced language such as the "agonizing affection." The paragraph captures rage at England, offset by the grand wistfulness of "We might have been a free and a great people together," capped by the slam that "a communication of grandeur and freedom...is below their dignity."

The final version of the Declaration of Independence maintained the enemies/friends locution, but otherwise eliminates the color and regret, and focuses on the immediate need for a break. In the light of history, it's better, crisper prose.

"We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."

Jefferson also wrote some commandingly strong language condemning slavery, which is refreshing to read in the context of so much debate over his personal views on the subject. Jefferson wrote of the "present King of Great Britain":

"...He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most scared rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them to slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFINDEL 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 to restrain this execrable commerce."

That's unambiguous language; and note that Adams and Franklin eliminated the potent phrase "...determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold..." Congress killed off the rest of it, and essentially started the Civil War with that elision.

Some other observations:

Even in the earliest days of the nation, the founding fathers were aware that their decisions were made in what we now call a global context, and that they needed to justify their actions to an acknowledged but unseen jury. There's something strangely prophetic about this language, given where we are now with our image and reputation:

"...a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they {the signers} should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

And then, preceding the litany of objections to England's onerous behavior:

"To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."

The last subject I want to deal with is the role of God and religion in the document. I'm sure that the religious right can't be pleased about the fact that rather than being steeped in Biblical language; given the era the Declaration is surprisingly light on religiosity.

Consider this phrase, part of the incantatory "When in the course of human events" opening salvo, which contains the only use of the word "God" in the entire Declaration of Independence. (And note that the "Laws of Nature" are listed first, and that the construction "Nature's God" suggests that God is a force of nature and not the other way around):

"....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...."

Also, the iconic "We hold these truths to be self-evident" line, which references a creator, had no such referent in Jefferson's original.

Jefferson's language makes it clear that the rights of man derive from our equality at birth, versus the bestowal of this gift by God:

"We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all Men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

On the other hand, Congress approved:

"...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Similarly in the coda to the Declaration, Jefferson eschewed the obligatory Biblical rhetorical default. He wrote:

"We therefore the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled, do, in the name & by the authority of the good people of these states, reject and renounce all allegiance & subjection to the kings of Great Britain."

And once, again, Congress cut out Jefferson's rapier language and puffed up the pronouncement with an appeal to the "Supreme Judge of the world."

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

So what should we take away from this? A bunch of things.

That whether it's Jefferson's language or the final draft, by comparison our political discourse is nothing more than fatted, inelegant verbosity, elbowless corporate-speak that refuses to take a stand and lets down the principled courage that started this whole thing going.

That our over-reliance on religion, our God-as-an-ingredient approach to political rhetoric, is completely de-synched from what is arguably the most important document in our national narrative.

That editing has its role. Jefferson's full list of grievances, many of them petty, would have ended up weakening the power of the Declaration had they been left in. You can only imagine what his full blog posts would have been like.