Declaring Independence: How They Chose These Words

Jefferson wrote the Declaration's first draft, but it was Franklin's editing that made a phrase immortal

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Detail of edits by Franklin and Adams of Thomas Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence

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On July 2, the Continental Congress finally took the momentous step of voting for independence. Pennsylvania was one of the last states to hold out; until June, its legislature had instructed its delegates to "utterly reject" any actions "that may cause or lead to a separation from our Mother Country." But under pressure from a more radical rump legislature, the instructions were changed. Led by Franklin, Pennsylvania's delegation joined the rest of the colonies in voting for independence.

As soon as the vote was completed, the Congress formed itself into a committee of the whole to consider Jefferson's draft Declaration. They were not as light in their editing as Franklin had been. Large sections were eviscerated, most notably the one that criticized the King for perpetuating the slave trade. Congress also, to its credit, cut by more than half the draft's final five paragraphs, in which Jefferson had begun to ramble in a way that detracted from the document's power. Jefferson was distraught. "I was sitting by Dr. Franklin," he recalled, "who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations." Franklin did his best to console him.

At the official signing of the parchment copy on Aug. 2, John Hancock, the president of the Congress, penned his name with his famous flourish. "There must be no pulling different ways," he declared. "We must all hang together." According to the early American historian Jared Sparks, Franklin replied, "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Their lives, as well as their sacred honor, had been put on the line.

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