My personal Fourth of July routine has included re-reading the Declaration of Independence.
Only recently, however, have I learned that the Declaration of Independence, or at least widely accepted versions of it, contain revisionist history. The document we celebrate on July 4 has fifty-six signers. But the only signatures on the original Declaration, which was attached to the official proceedings of Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, were that of John Hancock as President of the Congress and Charles Thomson, who was not a delegate, as Secretary.
The Declaration of Independence on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Museum is different and does contain the fifty-six signatures. Although the Archives version says, “In Congress, July 4, 1776,” it was, in fact, executed later. On July 19, 1776, Congress resolved that that the Declaration be engrossed on parchment and that it “be signed by every member of Congress.” The signers, then, did not sign on July 4, 1776. Most signed on August 2, 1776. You might think that the revision is minor since the signatories had agreed on July 4 to adopt the Declaration; they only failed to put their John Hancocks on the original document. However, several members of Congress on July 4, 1776, were absent on the day the Declaration was adopted. Even so, they later signed the engrossed copy. Furthermore, several other signers were not even members of Congress on the Fourth of July. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was appointed as a congressional delegate by Maryland on July 4 (is it surprising that the Maryland legislature was working on a holiday?) but did not present his credentials to the Continental Congress until July 18. He still signed the parchment. Five other signers were not appointed until July 20.
The National Archives Declaration states that it is “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Such unanimity language does not appear on the original Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, because it was not unanimous. The New York delegation abstained on that date and sought further guidance on how it should vote from the New York State convention. Only eleven days after the Declaration was adopted did the New York delegates receive approval to vote for independence.
I have now realized that I have been reading both versions of the Declaration of Independence without noticing that they varied. The copy that is in reach above my desk is of the original one promulgated on July 4, 1776, without all the signatures and without the unanimity language, while the version I have most often read reprinted in newspapers and in broadsides is the historical re-write. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the most famous version of the Declaration is revisionist history, but it does not matter much which version you read because both contain the memorable language that we most often ascribe to Thomas Jefferson that begins “When in the course of human events. . . .”
Even after reading this text many times, I note the archaisms, but still admire the rhythm and the phrasing of the Declaration’s first section—“a decent respect to [not for] the opinions of mankind. . .”; “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established. . . ,” “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
When we think about the Declaration, we usually only contemplate the opening paragraphs, but I am also fascinated by the list of elegantly written grievances about the King to justify the Revolution. I have tried to remember, not always successfully, what specifics had occasioned the often-vague complaints. Some of my frustration at my lack of historical knowledge was relieved when, after many perusals of the Declaration, I read American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier, who wrote, “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King, which is not surprising since even some well-informed persons of the eighteenth century were perplexed.” (Even so, I find it ironic today that the indictments included the assertions that the Crown had impeded immigration to our shores and prevented free trade.) Indeed, one of the assertions does not appear to be true. My own research into the American jury system for a book mirrors Maier’s conclusion: “Even the most assiduous efforts have, however, identified no colonists of the revolutionaries’ generation who were actually transported ‘beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses.’” Even Jefferson, it seems, was not above a bit of revisionist history.
Sometimes, however, in reading the Declaration I think about what I have learned about writing from Strunk and White in Elements of Style and similar books. The advice is consistent: Eliminate extraneous words; strive for clarity; be succinct. I look at the opening paragraph and think that it violates these precepts. It reads: “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”
If I had drafted the Declaration, it would have read: “We are declaring independence from Great Britain. Here is why.” Clear and succinct, but hardly memorable, and I recognize again Jefferson’s linguistic genius. (The spouse says that after finishing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, she can no longer hold Jefferson in the highest regard.) My conclusion has been tempered as I have learned that the Declaration was preceded by ninety or so state and local Declarations whose phrasings often were echoed in the Fourth of July proclamation and that Jefferson’s draft was frequently improved by the editing done by other delegates to the Continental Congress. But even so, Jefferson produced the draft that in its final form still lives centuries later. And it will and should continue to live as long as some still read it. On this Fourth of July, read it. All who consider themselves American should.