All men are created equal and they are endowed with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Not so fast, Mr. Jefferson! These words from the Declaration of Independence, and the facts behind them, are well known. In June of 1776, a little more than a year after the war against England began with the shots fired at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia to discuss American independence.
After long debates, a resolution of independence was approved on July 2, 1776. America was free! And men like John Adams thought we would celebrate that date forever. But it was two days later that the gentlemen in Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence, largely written by Thomas Jefferson, offering all the reasons why the country should be free. More than 235 years later, we celebrate that day as America’s birthday.
But there are some pieces of the story you may not know. First of all, Thomas Jefferson gets the credit for writing the Declaration, but five men had been given the job to come up with a document explaining why America should be independent: Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were all named first. And it was Adams who suggested that the young, and little known, Thomas Jefferson join them because they needed a man from the influential Virginia Delegation, and Adams thought Jefferson was a much better writer than he was.
Second, though Jefferson never used footnotes, or credited his sources, some of his memorable words and phrases were borrowed from other writers and slightly tweaked. Then, Franklin and Adams offered a few suggestions. But the most important change came after the Declaration was turned over to the full Congress. For two days, a very unhappy Thomas Jefferson sat and fumed while his words were picked over. In the end, the Congress made a few, minor word changes, and one big deletion.
In the long list of charges that Jefferson made against the King of England, the author of the Declaration had included the idea that George the Third was responsible for the slave trade, and was preventing America from ending slavery. That was not only untrue, but Congress wanted no mention of slavery in the nation’s founding document. The reference was cut out before the Declaration was approved and sent to the printer. But it leaves open the hard question: How could the men, who were about to sign a document, celebrating liberty and equality, accept a system in which some people owned others? It is a question that would eventually bring the nation to civil war and one we can still ask today.