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Thomas Jefferson's Autograph Copy of the Declaration of Independence
The Library is honored to safeguard a fair copy (clean, full-text version without corrections or alterations) of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson's hand.
On June 11, 1776, as the forces pushing the American Colonies toward independence from Great Britain gathered strength, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, appointed a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence. Within the Committee of Five, Thomas Jefferson quickly assumed the role of primary author; the other four — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston — made only minor, verbal suggestions. The finished draft was submitted to Congress on June 28, but before the text was ratified on July 4 a number of deletions, additions, and changes were made. Most notable was the removal of Jefferson's lengthy condemnation of the slave trade, an excision intended primarily to appease the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina.
The Declaration was read to the public for the first time on July 8, 1776, in the yard of the State House in Philadelphia, to the cheering of crowds and the pealing of bells. Jefferson was nevertheless distressed by the alterations to his text, and in the days immediately following July 4 he made several copies of the complete text that had been submitted to Congress, showing where changes were made, and sent them to five or six friends. Of the copies made in those few days, only one other complete version (now owned by the American Philosophical Society) and one fragment (now owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society) are known to have survived. It has been suggested, though never proved, that the Library's copy — in which he underlined words and passages that had been excised — is the one Jefferson sent to his former law professor and mentor, George Wythe; it is also sometimes referred to as the "Cassius Lee Copy," since its ownership has been traced back to Cassius F. Lee of Alexandria, Virginia.