No Public Defender Need Apply . . . (concluded)

          Republicans have attacked judicial nominees for having been public defenders, that is, for having defended poor people charged with crimes. These critics may be trying to raise a soft-on-crime banner, but they aren’t pledging fealty to the Constitution when they do so. These “conservatives” do not seem to know an important decision made by our Founders about defense counsel and our fundamental rights.

          You might take it for granted that those accused of crimes can have a lawyer to aid with their defense and assume that that right goes back to time immemorial, but when our country was formed, English law did not permit a defense counsel in criminal cases. It was not just that English law did not provide a lawyer for a person who could not hire one. Instead, those charged with felonies, even those facing execution, were forbidden from having an attorney.

          Our founders rejected those English restrictions. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which followed state constitutions that had already granted the right, guaranteed the right to a defense lawyer in criminal cases: “In all criminal prosecutions,” it states, “the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.”

          This was not some abstract right for the founders for they acted as those lawyers to defend unpopular clients charged with crimes. For example, there was this one future president….

          On March 5, 1770, while British soldiers were occupying Boston, a dispute erupted at the Custom House. The soldiers, led by Captain Thomas Preston, opened fire. Three Bostonians were instantly killed, and two others died soon afterwards. The event became known as the Boston Massacre.

          The soldiers were tried for murder in two separate trials. Captain Preston was prosecuted first, and the rest of the soldiers jointly tried later. With the defendants claiming self-defense as justification, Preston and five of the other soldiers were acquitted by juries, while two others were convicted only of manslaughter. 

          The lead counsel for the reviled defendants was John Adams—yes, that same John Adams who was our first vice-president and our second president. His defense did not stand in the way of these later political successes even if today some Republican senators would try to use his  advocacy to prevent him from serving in the federal government. Adams, however, was proud of his action. Three years after the trials, as the drums of the Revolution beat ever louder, Adams wrote that a “Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently.” The right to defense counsel that existed in Massachusetts had helped prevent that blot.

          John Adams was not the only lawyer of the founding generation to act as a defense counsel for the unpopular. Gulielma Sands lived in a New York City boarding house run by her cousin and her cousin’s husband, Catherine and Elias Ring. On December 22, 1799, Sands left that house never to return. On January 2, 1800, her body was fished out of the Manhattan Well. Newspapers flooded the town with rumors suggesting that fellow boarder, Levi Weeks, had killed her.

          Public titillation ran high and only a fraction of those seeking to attend the subsequent trial of Weeks got into the crowded courtroom. The case seemed simple but damning for Weeks. The prosecution maintained that he and Sands had become intimate. He had promised to marry her. People in the boardinghouse thought that the two had left the house together on December 22 for their marriage. Weeks returned later that evening, however, and claimed not to have been with her. A few days later, a boy found Sands’s muff in the Manhattan Well, and on January 2 her body was recovered. Doctors said that she had been strangled before being thrown into the well, and Weeks had intimated that her body was there before that fact was publicly known.

          The defense attorneys brilliantly shredded every part of the prosecution case, and Weeks was acquitted by a jury after five minutes of deliberations despite the publicity against him. The acquittal, however, did not return his standing in New York. He remained despised as a seducer and murderer and soon left for Mississippi.

          While the accused did not recover his reputation, the defense of this unpopular person did not tarnish his lawyers. People may have had many negative thoughts today and back then about Aaron Burr, soon to be vice-president, and Alexander Hamilton, but none stem from their defense of Levi Weeks. (Although they were political enemies, Burr and Hamilton appeared in the same courtroom, sometimes on the same side as in the Weeks trial and sometimes as opponents, during nearly every important legal case in New York City after the Revolution.) A third lawyer, Brockholst Livingston, joined them at the defense table. His participation did not stop Thomas Jefferson from nominating him to the Supreme Court, where he served for seventeen years. (Don’t take all your history from musicals. Hamilton refers to the Weeks trial, but has it set at an incorrect time.)

          The founders guaranteed a right to counsel. The founders acted as defense counsel. Today they would be attacked for this.

          Conservatives, however, attack public defenders for another reason. Those defenders do not just represent those accused of crimes. They represent the poor, the outcast, the powerless, and that also makes the defenders dangerous to Republican senators who apparently think that only those who have served the rich and powerful should be in the government, and that is especially true for the Supreme Court.

Baptists–American, South, and Right

          The Southern Baptist Convention gathered last month. It got a good bit of media attention because controversies are raging within the group over sex and race—volatile topics to say the least. The issues concern how the Baptists have handled sex abuse claims within its ranks and over the presentation of racial issues, particularly Critical Race Theory. A third issue–“sermongate”–has emerged over the “borrowing” without attribution by one prominent Southern Baptist minister of the sermons of other religious leaders.

The election of the head of the SBC was fiercely fought between a candidate labeled as conservative and another called a moderate with the moderate winning. “Moderate,” however, should be viewed in the context of current Southern Baptists. Elsewhere he might be seen as an extreme conservative. The controversies are especially important because Southern Baptist Churches have been losing parishioners, especially young adults. Southern Baptists are also concerned about waning political influence in a time when political power might mean choosing between conscience, religious principles, and alliance with Donald Trump, a person not well known for his conscience or religiosity.

Southern Baptists are an important institution because they are the largest American Protestant denomination, but I am especially interested in them because I was raised a Baptist. My family’s strain was that of the American Baptist Convention, which now has the name American Baptist Churches. (Earlier it was Northern Baptists.) There are many different versions of Baptists, but all practice adult, not infantile (ok, infant) baptism, and baptism not by merely the sprinkling of water but by full immersion of the believer.

          Baptists practice adult baptism by immersion because of the Bible. The Bible is divinely inspired, Baptists believe, and the ultimate authority for leading a Christian life. Baptists find no scriptural support for infant baptism. The biblical baptisms of Jesus by John the Baptist and one performed by Phillip were of adults, and there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist’s other baptisms were not also of adults.

          According to Baptists infant baptism is a man-made ritual, and it is not Christian to use man’s rituals over those of the Bible. And while it takes some extrapolation to conclude that immersion is required, the Bible does say that Jesus and others came out of the water. Other passages also seem to support that the biblical baptism was by dunking, including the verse–I think it is in one of the Romans–that says baptism symbolizes life, death, and resurrection. Sprinkling or the thumb’s spreading of water on a forehead doesn’t really seem to be a good symbol of that.

          Baptists maintained that the only biblically-based rituals were adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So on the first Sunday of every month we had communion. Little cubes of Wonder Bread and shot glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice were passed around. (As frugal as the church and its congregants were, it might not have been Welch’s, but an off brand.) I liked communion, but it raised some of my first doubts. I was told to take the Bible literally, but our church also commanded teetotaling. When I asked why communion served no wine, I was told that when the Bible said “wine,” it meant grape juice. Hmmm, I thought to myself.

          Adult baptism and communion and the Bible. Any other ritual or source comes from man and not God. No genuflecting. No stations of the cross. No Book of Common Prayer. No required kneeling. No incense. No icons. No required head covering. No rosary. No “mandatory” church attendance. No prayers other than to the Trinity. No saints. (It still bothers me to hear “The Gospel According to St. Mark.” No, it is the Gospel according to Mark.)

          Baptists are not only separated from other denominations by the lack of ritual but also by the absence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The only churches Jesus and his apostles recognized were no larger than a congregation, and Baptists maintain that is what the Christian church should still be. Nothing is above an individual church. No one imposes a minister, priest, or vicar on a Baptist church; the congregation selects its leader. No bishops; no presbytery. Each congregation is supreme.

          American Baptists did not have saints, but there was a theological progenitor—Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island after he was “asked” to leave Puritan Massachusetts. He established the first American Baptist church in Providence. Williams should be considered one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he seems to be almost unknown today. When I used to walk by the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison and 31st Street in Manhattan, I wondered how many of my fellow passersby had any idea who Roger Williams was. The hotel was built on land leased from the neighboring Baptist church, and, I once heard, was owned by the American Baptist Church. Times change. The hotel was sold, and now has what seems like a brand-tested name, The Roger.

          Williams was a remarkable man. Unlike many of his American contemporaries of the early seventeenth century, he treated the Indians with respect maintaining that the Native’s land had to be purchased not just seized for the English to have lawful title to it. He produced a primer of the complex Algonquian language. (Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language states that this work “is a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame.”) But Williams should be better known because so much of his thought, expressed in his voluminous writings, broke from conventional thinking and was the foundation for many of the bedrock principles of this country—sovereignty in the people, equality of people, liberty of individual conscience, and separation of church and state.

          Williams made the radical argument for his time that governments were not divinely inspired. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pick a government or endow rulers with authority. Instead, Williams contended, sovereignty is with the people. Just as people come together and join with God to form a church and then pick its ministers, the people come together to form a government and grant authority to its rulers.

          This led Williams to reject the common notion of his time that the state must enforce God’s laws to prevent religious errors. Instead, since the state gets its powers from the people, government is invested with all the errors of the people. Any attempt to enforce religion by the state will always be error-filled and will, in essence, be an attempt for people to have sovereignty over God. Thus, long before Jefferson, Williams called for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a wall he called for to protect not the state, but religion. He believed that religion always suffered when it was protected or required by the state. For Williams, the church is sheltered by spiritual weapons and harmed by government efforts to enforce religion. God makes Christians, not a government. When religion and politics are mixed, the result is not true religion, but politics.

          For Williams, the progenitor of American Baptists, religion was a personal thing. A person’s conscience is God’s line of communication to the individual. Because humans are imperfect, they might be wrong about what conscience demands, but since conscience comes from God, it is a sin for a person to act contrary to her conscience, even a mistaken one. If I (or the state or a religious leader) forces you to act in opposition to your conscience, I am forcing you to sin, and by forcing you to sin, I am sinning.

          In other words, all must be allowed to worship as their conscience dictates, and no one should be required to worship or support religious practices against his conscience. Jesus did not force or coerce anyone to God. Man, then, can’t force anyone to faith.

          A mistaken conscience can be corrected only by persuasion, not by force or coercion. An appeal to conscience, for Williams, required the related God-given ability of reasoning. Conscience demands proof, and proof comes from intellectual rigor. Proof has to satisfy reason or be from the Bible or from a writing that convinces an individual that it was divinely inspired. Thus, Williams rejected the Quakers who were led to Christ by a movement of an ill-defined spirit within the person. Such movement did not, could not, satisfy reason.

          These views led not just to liberty of conscience and toleration on religious matters, but on all subjects. And since Jesus did not indicate that one soul mattered more than another and that all individual consciences should be respected, it meant that society should treat all equally.

          (I have refreshed my understanding of Williams’s life and teachings primarily from Roger Williams: The Church and the State by Edmund S. Morgan; Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry; and Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.)

These Baptist precepts have led me both to my religious sensibilities as a youth and to my political thinking as an adult. The religious and the American neatly coincided. Just as people come together with God to form a church, the people of America came together to form a country—“We the People . . .” Sovereignty does not belong to the authorities, but starts with ordinary individuals. Both the church and America are founded on freedom of conscience. Religion cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of individual reason and persuasion. In America, a political view cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of an individual decision.

(continued June 19)

The Inclusive Declaration of Independence and the Founding of America (concluded)

          Of course, slavery existed throughout the country when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and we should not forget how that institution shaped our country. Nevertheless, for their time, the Founders also created an egalitarian and inclusive government in ways we now seldom appreciate. For example, unlike many of the state and foreign governments of the time, the United States had no property qualifications to hold office. In an era when they were common, no religious tests were required for holding office. And we seldom notice that the new country paid its officials. Many governments did not, so only the rich who could afford to be uncompensated could hold office. Unlike in other countries, all whites, or at least all white males, could hold office

The new country also broke from history and the practices of most countries by having no hereditary offices. A formal aristocracy died in the United States. Revolutionary America also moved to a more equal society by repealing primogeniture laws, which dictated that the firstborn male child would inherit his parent’s entire estate. This extraordinarily egalitarian reform, whose importance is seldom noticed today, was led by Thomas Jefferson in Virginia.

A related change in property law was also happening during this time. Under English law, aliens could buy property, but they could not inherit it. Aliens could sell the land they owned, but they could not grant it in a will. Instead, on death, an alien’s property went to the state. Revolutionary America began to repeal such inegalitarian laws helping to make the country more inclusive and prosperous.

The country’s first naturalization law had some of the same characteristics as the Declaration of Independence. It showed simultaneously both racial restriction and inclusiveness. The law limited naturalization to free, white citizens who had lived in the country for two years. We, of course, notice that nonwhites were excluded. (“Free” meant indentured servants could not be naturalized until they completed their periods of indenture.) Blacks could not be naturalized until 1870, and other nonwhites could not be naturalized until well into the twentieth century. (There was no legal definition of whiteness. When areas of Mexico became part of the United States in the early1850s, the former Mexicans of those lands were made citizens, and there was an implicit recognition that they were white. The Supreme Court dealt with whiteness and naturalization several times and concluded that Asians and South Asians were not white but that Syrians and Armenians were. In 1922 the Supreme Court held that a high caste Sikh was neither white nor black and could not be naturalized. He had fought for this country in World War I.)

However, in addition to noting the racial restriction, we should also consider the inclusiveness of this law. It did not impose a property requirement. The rich and the not rich could become citizens. Aristocratic origins did not matter. There was the racial limitation, but no national origin requirement. There was no religious test. At a time when Catholics could not become citizens in England and Jews could not become citizens in many places, they could in the United States.

We should keep both racial restrictions as well as these inclusions in mind when we consider this country’s origins. The founding era accepted an institution whose ramifications have troubled us throughout our history, but it also gave us foundations for much of what is good in this country.

I am sure that some will mostly criticize America on the Fourth, which is their right. And I am sure that some will call such critics unpatriotic, which is their right.

Patriotism has often been a tenuous concept. Vicksburg, Mississippi, offers an example of its fragility. Exactly four score and seven years ago to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, confederate General John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to American General Ulysses S. Grant after a forty-seven–day siege. This was certainly one of the most important actions of the war because it gave control of the Mississippi River to the Americans and severed the confederacy.

Thus, July 4, 1863, is another Fourth of July for patriotic Americans to celebrate, but Vicksburg didn’t see it that way. The town did not honor the Fourth of July for the next eight decades. They continued to identify as confederates, not as Americans. Vicksburg simply ignored Independence Day until after World War II when General Dwight Eisenhower visited the town on the Fourth. Even so, Vicksburg did not want to celebrate the United States. It called the celebrations during Eisenhower’s visit a Carnival of the Confederacy, a title I am told that was dropped only when the country and Vicksburg celebrated the Bicentennial in 1976. I’m not sure what to make of their tenacious grasp of a different brand of “patriotism.” I guess I’m just glad that they finally celebrate along with the rest of us.

And I hope all Americans can find something to celebrate this Fourth of July.

The Shortsighted Electoral College (concluded)

The major effect of the original Electoral College was not to give power to the small states but to the slaveholding states. Madison had said that a direct presidential election was “fittest” but it would harm the South, citing the more “diffusive” franchise in the North, but the Virginian slaveholder continued with the curious comment that with a direct election the South would “have no influence on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty. . . .” The “difficulty” was avoided by basing the number of electors on representation in the House of Representatives. The apportionment of the House, of course, incorporated the three-fifths clause where that percentage of slaves was used in the allocation of House seats.

The three-fifths clause was, therefore, incorporated into the Electoral College giving extra power to the large slaveholding states. The first census in 1790 found that New York had a free white population of 313,000 and North Carolina had a free white population of 289,000. Each state had the same electors, however—twelve—after that first census. While New York had 21,324 slaves, North Carolina had 100,572. South Carolina had a free white population of 139,000 but New Jersey had thirty thousand more. Even so, South Carolina had twelve electors and New Jersey eleven. South Carolina had 107,094 slaves and New Jersey 11,423. (New Jersey is the starkest example of why Madison feared for the effect on the South if there had been a direct election of the President. Even if the franchise had been equally distributed in South Carolina and New Jersey, New Jersey with its larger white population no doubt would have had more power in picking the president; if the turnout was equal, New Jersey would have about 20% more votes than South Carolina. But as Madison had to know, New Jersey then allowed women to vote, and its total vote might have been twice that of South Carolina’s. With the Electoral College as adopted, even though South Carolina had the smaller white population, it had more power in the presidential selection than New Jersey.)

Virginia had a free white population of 441,000; Pennsylvania had 422,000, about a four percent difference. Virginia had 292,627 slaves and Pennsylvania had 3,731. Even though 40% of Virginia’s population could not vote, Virginia had forty percent more electors than Pennsylvania—twenty-one to fifteen.

A direct vote for President would have lessened the power of the South; instead the electoral college as adopted magnified it. Founders recognized and said that large states would dominate the vote in the Electoral College, and Southern states would have special influence in picking a President because of the peculiar way in which slaves were counted.

Unlike what some people now claim, the demigods of 1787 did not protect small states via the Electoral College, and their sop of requiring electors to vote for two people with one not from the state of the elector proved to be a laughable protection. The Framers in adopting the Electoral College did not foresee the rise of political parties even though parties were in place only a few years after the Constitution was adopted and were evident in the first contested presidential election, after Washington retired in 1796.* By then, two men ran as a team with one running for President and the other as Vice-President. The country made it through 1796 without a major problem, but the Electoral College caused a crisis in 1800.

Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as a Republican team in the presidential election. The widespread understanding was that Jefferson was running for President and Burr for Vice President. John Adams, the Federalist incumbent, ran with his vice-presidential running mate Thomas Pinckney against Jefferson and Burr. Jefferson got seventy-three electoral votes to Adams sixty-five, making Jefferson the apparent victor, but of course, because each elector had two votes, Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson. A tie, which was not foreseen by the Framers but was close to inevitable with the rise of political parties.

The selection of the President in 1800 went to the lame-duck Federalist-dominated House, even though the Federalists had lost the election. That losing party had to decide which Republican, Jefferson or Burr, was the lesser evil. Thirty-six ballots later, Jefferson became the third President. And we got the Twelfth Amendment to fix this major flaw. That Amendment required electors to cast separate votes for President and Vice-President.** At least when it came to the Electoral College, the Framers did not see very far at all.

Remember this whenever someone suggests that the Framers were infallible or that the Constitution is a God-given document. And remember that the original Constitution gave the major slave-holding states the dominant power in picking the President.


*The Framers also did not foresee that electoral votes would be allocated by a winner-takes-all approach where the candidate with the most votes in each state would get all of that state’s electoral votes. That development, however, did not come quite as quickly as the rise of political parties. In 1796, even though Jefferson won the most votes in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, one elector in each of those states voted for John Adams instead and those three votes made Adams president. He received 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68. Jefferson received the second most votes. (Adams’s running mate, Thomas Pinckney, garnered 59 electoral votes.) Under the electoral system then in place, Jefferson became Vice-President under his political enemy, Adams, an uncomfortable result.

**Elections might have been more fun if we still had the original electoral scheme as indicated by Alexander Hamilton’s devious actions in 1796. Although Adams and Hamilton were both Federalists, Hamilton did not want Adams to become President. Supposedly Hamilton approached electors in states Jefferson had won and urged those electors, after voting for Jefferson, to give their second vote to Thomas Pinckney. Hamilton was hoping that Jefferson-Pinckney votes plus Adams-Pinckney votes would give Pinckney the most electoral votes and the Presidency. Hamilton’s machinations seem to have borne some fruit, most notably in South Carolina where both Jefferson and Pinckney received eight electoral votes. The scheme failed because in a number of states that Adams won, the electors divided their second votes between Pinckney and other candidates or did not give any second votes to Pinckney. For example, Adams received nine votes in Connecticut, but Pinckney got only four, with five votes going to John Jay. New Hampshire gave six votes to Adams, but none to Pinckney. Pinckney received twelve fewer electoral votes than Adams. But think of the gamesmanship we might have if this original electoral edifice still existed.

Dear Scrotty Students. Really? (concluded)

          The “Dear Scrotty Students” letter that supposedly addressed a controversy concerning a statue said that “a key part of the Oxford intellectual tradition [is that] you can argue any damn thing you like but you need to be able to justify it with facts and logic—otherwise your idea is worthless.” The letter did not tell us why the students said that the Rhodes statue should be removed, so we can gauge the worth of their contentions, but, on the other hand, it presented little by the way of logic and facts for keeping the statue of Rhodes other than to say that he was an Oxford benefactor. I understand that money often trumps everything else, but I hoped that the university would present at least some reasoned argument for keeping the Rhodes monument. Instead, the response attacked the change-seekers’ heritage, country, and continent: your ancestors lived in mud huts; the Bantus have not contributed to modern civilization; South Africa has high rates of murder and sicknesses. Even if true, so bloody what?  That “reasoning” does nothing to explain why Rhodes statue should stay where it is. Surely, I thought, a spokesperson for Oxford ought to know the meaning of non sequitur and avoid it.

          The supposed letter did say that Oxford “always prefers facts and free, open debate.” But it closed with: “you have everything to learn from us; we have nothing to learn from you.” You can’t believe both statements. That closing is not a tenet of open debate, but of the closing of the British, or at least, the Oxford mind. No one who is truly an educator should ever say that I won’t listen to you. No one who believes in open debate would ever say that they have nothing to learn from someone else.

          This “reasoning” is akin to the following scenario: A brit tells me that kale is healthy and will not invariably make me puke. I reply: “I do not need to respond to your reasoning. I won’t even listen to your contentions. I have nothing to learn from you. You are English, and your ancestors were brutal, murderous, disease-spreading colonists, and your country can’t even play good rugby anymore.”

          An intelligent, reasoning person should have quickly questioned the authenticity of a letter employing such schoolyard logic (“So’s your mother”). Americans especially should have had doubts when the letter asked, “Thomas Jefferson kept slaves: does that invalidate the US Constitution?” Jefferson, of course, was not a drafter of the Constitution, and the question is unlikely to have come from an informed person.

After reading the letter, I did five minutes of internet research, and I was not surprised to find that the letter was indeed a fake. It was a product of a writer on in 2015. He had concerns that the relatively moderate and reasoned approach by Oxford to the Rhodes statue controversy had not been firm enough. He wrote the “letter” but prefaced it with: “Here is the letter Oriel College should have written to the campaigners from Rhodes Must Fall.”

Subsequent appearances of the letter on the internet and in emails have dropped this introduction, and without this preface it elicits many comments of praise from people who have reflexively accepted it as authentic. Why the commendations? It must be the intemperate tone towards the African students. Like the actual letter writer, the praise-givers must be fantasizing that this is what they would have said to those seeking change if they were the head of Oxford. In their fantasy world, this is a convincing letter.

Some versions of the letter place an asterisk after “Autres temps, autres moeurs” in the text, and that phrase is translated after the letter’s conclusion. Apparently whoever placed the footnote and those who forward the letter don’t expect their readers to understand the foreign language even though the letter castigates those who lack this comprehension: “If you don’t understand what this means – and it would not remotely surprise us if that were the case – then we really think you should ask yourself the question: “Why am I at Oxford?” The irony seems lost on many who read this passage.

Once again, I am reminded of the power of the internet. It places a world of knowledge at our fingertips, but many can’t spend the few moments to seek it out. They are not equipped to detect sloppy thinking and prefer to remain in the ignorance that the internet could dispel. But they can use the internet to pass along stupidities to other like-minded people.

I wonder if “scrotty” should be applied to them.

Was the Declaration on the Fourth of July?

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.