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


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

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    Jefferson's writing style, however, was different from Franklin's. It was graced with rolling cadences and mellifluous phrases, soaring in their poetry and powerful despite their polish. In addition, Jefferson drew on a depth of philosophy not found in Franklin. He echoed both the language and grand theories of English and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, most notably the concept of natural rights propounded by John Locke, whose Second Treatise on Government he had read at least three times. And he built his case, in a manner more sophisticated than Franklin would have, on a contract between government and the governed that was founded on the consent of the people. Jefferson also, it should be noted, borrowed freely from the phrasings of others, including the resounding Declaration of Rights in the new Virginia constitution that had just been drafted by his fellow planter George Mason, in a manner that today might subject him to questions of plagiarism but back then was considered not only proper but learned.

    When he had finished a draft and incorporated some changes from Adams, Jefferson sent it to Franklin on the morning of Friday, June 21. "Will Doctor Franklin be so good as to peruse it," he wrote in his cover note, "and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?" People were much more polite to editors back then.

    Franklin made only a few changes, some of which can be viewed written in his hand on what Jefferson referred to as the "rough draft" of the Declaration. (This remarkable document is at the Library of Congress and on its website.) The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson's phrase "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

    The idea of "self-evident" truths was one that drew less on Locke, who was Jefferson's favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin's close friend David Hume. In what became known as "Hume's fork," the great Scottish philosopher had developed a theory that distinguished between "synthetic" truths that describe matters of fact (such as "London is bigger than Philadelphia") and "analytic" truths that are so by virtue of reason and definition ("the angles of a triangle total 180 degrees"; "all bachelors are unmarried"). Hume referred to the latter type of axioms as "self-evident" truths. By using the word "sacred," Jefferson had implied, intentionally or not, that the principle in question--the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights--was an assertion of religion. Franklin's edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

    Franklin's other edits were less felicitous. He changed Jefferson's "reduce them to arbitrary power" to "reduce them under absolute despotism," and he took out the literary flourish in Jefferson's "invade and deluge us in blood" to make it more sparse: "invade and destroy us." And a few of his changes seemed somewhat pedantic. "Amount of their salaries" became "amount and payment of their salaries."

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