Mr. Jefferson was naturally urged to prepare the draft. He was chairman of the committee, having received the highest number of votes; he was also its youngest member, and therefore bound to do an ample share of the work; he was noted for his skill with the pen; he was particularly conversant with the points of the controversy; he was a Virginian. The task, indeed, was not very arduous or difficult. Nothing was wanted but a careful and brief recapitulation of wrongs familiar to every patriotic mind, and a clear statement of principles hackneyed from eleven years' iteration. Jefferson made no difficulty about undertaking it, and probably had no anticipation of the vast celebrity that was to follow so slight an exercise of his faculties. . . .
Jefferson then lived in a new brick house out in the fields, near what is now the corner of Market and Seventh Streets, a quarter of a mile from Independence Square. "I rented the second floor," he tells us, "consisting of a parlor and bedroom, ready furnished," rent, thirty-five shillings a week; and he wrote this paper in the parlor, upon a little writing-desk three inches high, which still exists.
He was ready with his draft in time. His colleagues upon the committee suggested a few verbal changes, none of which were important; but, during the three days' discussion of it in the house, it was subjected to a review so critical and severe, that the author sat in his place silently writhing under it, and Dr. Franklin felt called upon to console him with the comic relation of the process by which the sign-board of John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money, was reduced to the name of the hatter and the figure of a hat. Young writers know what he suffered, who, come fresh from the commencement platform to a newspaper office, and have their eloquent editorials (equal to Burke) remorselessly edited, their best passages curtailed, their glowing conclusions and artful openings cut off, their happy epithets and striking similes omitted.
Congress made eighteen suppressions, six additions, and ten alterations; and nearly every one of these changes was an improvement. The author, for example, said that men are endowed with "inherent and inalienable rights." Congress struck out inherent-an obvious improvement. He introduced his catalog of wrongs by these words: "To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world, for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood." It was good taste in Congress to strike out the italicized clause. That the passage concerning slavery should have been stricken out by Congress has often been regretted; but would it have been decent in this body to denounce the king for a crime in the guilt of which the colonies had shared? Mr. Jefferson wrote in his draft:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."
Surely the omission of this passage was not less right than wise. New England towns had been enriched by the commerce in slaves, and the Southern colonies had subsisted on the labor of slaves for a hundred years. The foolish king had committed errors enough; but it was not fair to hold so limited a person responsible for not being a century in advance of his age; nor was it ever in the power of any king to compel his subjects to be slave-owners. It was young Virginia that spoke in this paragraphWythe, Jefferson, Madison, and their young friendsnot the public mind of America, which was destined to reach it, ninety years after, by the usual way of agony and blood. . . .
The "glittering generality" of the document, "all men are created equal," appears to have been accepted, without objection or remark, as a short and simple reprobation of caste and privilege. Readers are aware that it has not escaped contemptuous comment in recent times. It would have been easy for the author of the Declarationand I wish he had done soto put the statement in words which partizan prejudice itself could not have plausibly pretended to misunderstand; for, as the passage stands, its most obvious me is not true.
The noblest utterance of the whole composition is the reason given for making the Declaration "A DECENT RESPECT FOR THE OPINIONS OF MANKIND."This touches the heart. Among the best emotions that human nature knows is the veneration of man for man.
During the 2d, 3d, and 4th of July, Congress was engaged in reviewing the Declaration. Thursday, the fourth, was a hot day; the session lasted many hours; members were tired and impatient. Every one who has watched the sessions of a deliberative body knows how the most important measures are retarded, accelerated, even defeated, by physical causes of the most trifling nature. Mr. Kinglake intimates that Lord Raglan's invasion of the Crimea was due rather to the after-dinner slumbers of the British Cabinet, than to any well-considered purpose. Mr. Jefferson used to relate, with much merriment, that the final signing of the Declaration of Independence was hastened by an absurdly trivial cause. Near the hall in which the debates were then held was a livery-stable, from which swarms of flies came into the open windows, and assailed the silk-stockinged legs of honorable members. Handkerchief in hand, they lashed the flies with such vigor as they could command on a July afternoon; but the annoyance became at length so extreme as to render them impatient of delay and they made haste to bring the momentous business to a conclusion.
After such a long and severe strain upon their minds, members seem to have indulged in many a jocular observation as they stood around the table. Tradition has it that when John Hancock had affixt his magnificent signature to the paper, he said, "There, John Bull may read my name without spectacles!" Tradition, also, will never relinquish the pleasure of repeating, that, when Mr. Hancock reminded members of the necessity of hanging together, Dr. Franklin was ready with his, "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or else, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." And this may have suggested to the portly Harrisona "luxurious, heavy gentleman," as John Adams describes himhis remark to slender Elbridge Gerry, that, when the hanging came, he should have the advantage; for Gerry would be kicking in the air long after it was over with himself.
No composition of man was ever received with more rapture than this. It came at a happy time. Boston was delivered, and New York, as yet, but menaced; and in all New England there was not a British soldier who was not a prisoner, nor a king's ship that was not a prize. Between the expulsion of the British troops from Boston, and their capture of New York, was the period of the Revolutionary War when the people were most confident and most united. From the newspapers and letters of the times, we should infer that the contest was ending rather than beginning, so exultant is their tone; and the Declaration of Independence, therefore, was received more like a song of triumph than a call to battle.
The paper was signed late on Thursday afternoon, July 4. On the Monday following, at noon, it was publicly read for the first time, in Independence Square, from a platform erected by Rittenhouse for the purpose of observing the transit of Venus. Captain John Hopkins, a young man commanding an armed brig of the navy of the new nation, was the reader; and it required his stentorian voice to carry the words to the distant verge of the multitude who had come to hear it. In the evening, as a journal of the day has it, "our late king's coat-of-arms were brought from the hall of the State House, where the said king's courts were formerly held, and burned amid the acclamation of a crowd of spectators." Similar scenes transpired in every center of population, and at every camp and post. Usually the militia companies, the committee of safety, and other revolutionary bodies, marched in procession to some public place, where they listened decorously to the reading of the Declaration, at the conclusion of which cheers were given and salutes fired; and, in the evening there were illuminations and bonfires. In New York, after the reading,2 the leaden statue of the late king in Bowling Green was &quto;laid prostate in the dirt,&quto; and ordered to be run into bullets. The debtors in prison were also set at liberty. Virginia, before the news of the Declaration had reached her (July 5, 1776), had stricken the king's name out of the prayer-book; and now (July 30), Rhode Island made it a misdemeanor to pray for the king as king, under penalty of a fine of one hundred thousand pounds!
The news of the Declaration was received with sorrow by all that was best in England. Samuel Rogers3 used to give American guests at his breakfasts an interesting reminiscence of this period. On the morning after the intelligence reached London, his father, at family prayers, added a prayer for the success of the colonies, which he repeated every day until the peace.
The deed was done. A people not formed for empire ceased to be imperial; and a people destined to empire began the political education that will one day give them far more and better than imperial sway.
1From Parton's "Life of Jefferson." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright, 1874.
2The "Declaration" was read to the public in New York in what is now City Hall Park, the army of Washington, recently arrived from Boston, being present.