A Closer Look at Jefferson's Declaration

By Thomas Lannon, Assistant Curator, Manuscripts & Archives Division
July 2, 2012
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

The New York Public Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division is honored to safeguard a copy of the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson. Because the Declaration was featured in the Library’s 2011 Centennial Exhibition, it will not be on display in July 2012. However, the occasion offers a chance instead for a closer look at the document through the Library’s website. In the days immediately following its ratification on July 4, 1776, Jefferson made at least two copies of the Declaration that had been submitted to the Continental Congress and underlined those passages to which changes had been made. This blog post will summarize the history of Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence and describe how it came to be a part of the Library’s collection. I will also use high resolution images to illustrate how a portion of the text Jefferson devoted to the slave trade was edited by Congress.

Declaration of Independence.  Draft in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson., Digital ID psnypl_mss_1228, New York Public Library

“A copy of the Declaration made by Jefferson after its adoption and publication, in which he gave the wording of the text as reported by the Committee, with the portions underlined that were changed or rejected by Congress.”

Jefferson’s draft arrived at the Library in 1897 as part of the collection of Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet. Historians believe the copy to be one of two made by Jefferson for Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe. In a letter written around the time his collection was transferred to the Lenox Library, Dr. Emmet had advised Library officials that, “The draft of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s handwriting came from the grandson of Mr. Lee who lived in Alexandria, VA, who has died within a year or two. I was one minute too late to purchase it directly from Mr. Lee — Mr. Elliot Danforth of N.J. made the purchase direct. And I obtained it from Mr. Danforth.” Emmet’s collection was an incredible resource for American history and included over 10,000 manuscripts, prints, and portraits in addition to Jefferson's draft.

The origins of the Declaration of Independence are found in the history of political thought and the breakdown of Colonial governments after 1770. The Declaration is rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, the English constitution and its charter the ‘Magna Carta,’ and early modern republicanism. It is highly probable that Jefferson was thinking of the Declaration in the spring of 1776 when he drafted the Virginia Constitution, which echoed a similar repudiation of allegiance to George III.  Montesquieu’s influential 'Spirit of Laws' designated monarchy to be a government in which executive power was vested in a single person. Therefore, Jefferson likely concieved the Declaration as necessary step along this intellectual continuum to establish a new republican government on behalf of the people.

As of May 10, 1776, Congress had resolved to establish new governments for the Colonies. On May 15, it was declared “the exercise of every kind of authority under the Crown should be totally suppressed." Congress was turning into a revolutionary body filled with advisors intent on achieving independence. Jefferson was tasked to write the Declaration after the resolution of his fellow Virginia representative Richard Henry Lee was set forth in Congress on June 7, 1776. Lee's resolution famously stated "That 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, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
It was all very well for Lee to state this, and for Congress to finally agree, but it was something entirely different for representatives from separate Colonies to agree on what terms and in what manner they should absolve allegiance to the Crown. Five of the thirteen had lacked agents in London since 1774. Governments from Massachusetts to Georgia were in pieces and revolt was spreading. Independence needed to be declared, and a new government had to be established. The two were not one and the same, but one required the other — and each was supported by a specific document: the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

Graff's house, where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence., Digital ID 1253625, New York Public Library

Graff's house, where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson composed the Declaration between June 11 and June 28, 1776 while staying in the house of Jacob Graff, Jr., a bricklayer, on Market Street in Philadelphia. “The committee for drawing the Declaration of Independence desired me to do it. It was accordingly done” is how Jefferson reservedly remembered the process in his Autobiography. The Committee, known as the Committee of Five, included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. If the group met to outline the document, Jefferson alone took on the task of writing the document.

Due to the 1947 discovery of a fragment of the Declaration in papers held at the Library of Congress, historians now know Jefferson worked on at least one heavily edited draft before composing the original 'rough draft' which he sent to Ben Franklin and John Adams for review. Julian P. Boyd, the discoverer of that fragment and editor of Jefferson’s papers, argued Jefferson presented the rough draft first to Adams, who made his own copy, and secondly to Franklin. This rough draft is held in the Library of Congress and includes the first set of edits from Adams and Franklin. Among these edits, the phrase “self-evident” replaced “sacred & undeniable.” The New York Public Library’s copy is referred to as a ‘fair copy’ because it incorporated Franklin's and Adams' edits, but also included sections later edited by Congress before the document was printed in the Rough Journal of Congress on July 4, 1776.

Portraits of the Independence Committee., Digital ID 1253624, New York Public Library

Portraits of the Independence Committee .

The Declaration of Independence is often described as being composed in three sections. The first part states the case for a people’s individual rights, the second lists grievances against the King of England, and the third formally declares independence and the need to separate Colonial governance from British rule. All three were necessary to declare the people of the thirteen colonies separate from the British Crown.

The section regarding the slave trade, or ‘reprobating the enslaving of the inhabitants of Africa’ is found in the list of grievances against the King. This section is on the third page of the 'fair copy' draft. It is interesting that Jefferson thought slavery had been foisted upon the Colonies only as they were designed to bring economic gain to England. The specific words about slavery were later removed by Congress. In his Autobiography, Jefferson wrote:

"The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."

Jefferson's grievance regarding the Slave Trade later removed from the Declaration of Independence by Congress.

Declaration of Independence.  Draft in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson., Digital ID psnypl_mss_1231, New York Public Library

THE UNDERLINED SECTION READS:  he [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slaver

Thomas Jefferson has had many biographers. He is often remembered as an American philosophe steeped in the Enlightenment philosophy of equality and human rights. However, he has not been forgiven for his personal stance on slavery. Few can still ignore the visible contrast of Jefferson’s slave ownership with his apparent belief in liberty and equality. Those who see hypocrisy and self-righteousness in Jefferson’s doctrinaire liberalism no doubt also see race as a founding inequality and central issue in the American character. While those who instead view Jefferson as a symbol of what we as a country aspire to, will point to the draft of the Declaration as evidence of the Virginia statesman's abhorrence of the slave trade and its negative effect on humanity. Jefferson’s nineteenth century biographer James Parton described the Founding Father as someone who “could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a case, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin.” But Parton also wrote, "If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right." This may seem extreme, but today we still try to prove Jefferson not merely a figure bound by limitations of the eighteenth century, but rather an individual whose words, safeguarded here at the Library, transcend time and remain relevant today.

Additional readings

Jefferson's Writings:

Thomas Jefferson, Writings, Literary Classics of the U.S., 1984.

Standard biographies of Jefferson:
Merrill Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, Oxford University Press, 1960. 
Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, Little Brown, 1948-1981.
Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Books about the Declaration of Independence:
Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, Alfred A. Knopf, 1942. 
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, Knopf, 1997.
Gary Wills, Inventing America, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Doubleday, 1978. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text, Julian P. Boyd: edited by Gerard W. Gawalt. University Press of New England, 1999. U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Jack Rakove ed., Harvard University Press, 2009.

Other Reference Sources:

Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, edited from the original records in the Library of Congress, Worthington C. Ford ed., Government Printing Office, 1904-1937. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd ed, Princeton University, 1950-