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Making Sense Of The Fourth Of July
The DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is not what Thomas Jefferson thought it was when he wrote it—and that is why we celebrate it
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Adams, in truth, was miffed by Jefferson’s celebrity as the penman of Independence. The drafting of the Declaration of Independence, he thought, had assumed an exaggerated importance. Jefferson perhaps agreed; he, too, cautioned a correspondent against giving too much emphasis to “mere composition.” The Declaration, he said, had not and had not been meant to be an original or novel creation; his assignment had been to produce “an expression of the American mind, and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
Jefferson, however, played an important role in rescuing the Declaration from obscurity and making it a defining event of the revolutionary “heroic age.” It was he who first suggested that the young John Trumbull paint The Declaration of Independence . And Trumbull’s first sketch of his famous painting shares a piece of drawing paper with a sketch by Jefferson, executed in Paris sometime in 1786, of the assembly room in the Old Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. Trumbull’s painting of the scene carefully followed Jefferson’s sketch, which unfortunately included architectural inaccuracies, as Trumbull later learned to his dismay.
Jefferson also spent hour after hour answering, in longhand, letters that he said numbered 1,267 in 1820, many of which asked questions about the Declaration and its creation. Unfortunately, his responses, like the sketch he made for Trumbull, were inaccurate in many details. Even his account of the drafting process, retold in an important letter to James Madison of 1823 that has been accepted by one authority after another, conflicts with a note he sent Benjamin Franklin in June 1776. Jefferson forgot, in short, how substantial a role other members of the drafting committee had played in framing the Declaration and adjusting its text before it was submitted to Congress.
JEFFERSON FORGOT, AS the years went by, how substantial a role other members of the committee had played in framing the Declaration’s text.
Indeed, in old age Jefferson found enormous consolation in the fact that he was, as he ordered inscribed on his tomb, “Author of the Declaration of American Independence.” More than anything else he had done, that role came to justify his life. It saved him from a despair that he suffered at the time of the Missouri crisis, when everything the Revolution had accomplished seemed to him in jeopardy, and that was later fed by problems at the University of Virginia, his own deteriorating health, and personal financial troubles so severe that he feared the loss of his beloved home, Monticello (those troubles, incidentally, virtually precluded him from freeing more than a handful of slaves at his death). The Declaration, as he told Madison, was “the fundamental act of union of these States,” a document that should be recalled “to cherish the principles of the instrument in the bosoms of our own citizens.” Again in 1824 he interpreted the government’s re-publication of the Declaration as “a pledge of adhesion to its principles and of a sacred determination to maintain and perpetuate them,” which he described as a “holy purpose.”
But just which principles did he mean? Those in the Declaration’s second paragraph, which he understood exactly as they had been understood in 1776—as an assertion primarily of the right of revolution. Jefferson composed the long sentence beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident” in a well-known eighteenth-century rhetorical style by which one phrase was piled on another and the meaning of the whole became clear only at the end. The sequence ended with an assertion of the “Right of the People to alter or to abolish” any government that failed to secure their in-alienable rights and to institute a new form of government more likely “to effect their Safety and Happiness.” That was the right Americans were exercising in July 1776, and it seemed no less relevant in the 1820s, when revolutionary movements were sweeping through Europe and Latin America. The American example would be, as Jefferson said in the last letter of his life, a “signal arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
Others, however, emphasized the opening phrases of the sentence that began the Declaration’s second paragraph, particularly “the memorable assertion, that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’” That passage, the eulogist John Sergeant said at Philadelphia in July 1826, was the “text of the revolution,” the “ruling vital principle” that had inspired the men of the 1770s, who “looked forward through succeeding generations, and saw stamped upon all their institutions, the great principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence.” In Hallowell, Maine, another eulogist, Peleg Sprague, similarly described the Declaration of Independence as an assertion “ by a whole people , of… the native equality of the human race , as the true foundation of all political, of all human institutions.”