A few thoughts on the Declaration of Independence on this Fourth of July after having read much about the Revolutionary War period in recent years.
In addition to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, two other members were on the Committee of Five tasked to draft the document – Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. It is not know what, if any, contributions Sherman and Livingston made to the document as the group met infrequently from June 10th to July 5th and kept no minutes.
Though there is some debate on this subject, Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, but only because John Adams asked him to. The other four members of the committee wanted Adams to write it. At the time, authoring the document was seen as being a relatively menial task and high profile members of the Continental Congress such as Adams much preferred oration before their peers to a writing assignment such as this. As it turned out, writing the Declaration of Independence was, by far, the most important development in Thomas Jefferson’s political career.
Jefferson borrowed liberally from others, notably the Virginia Declaration of Rights that was adopted by the Virginia Convention in June and opens with the following:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
This is surprisingly similar to the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The most famous edit came from Benjamin Franklin who suggested changing “sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident” in the passage directly above.
Lastly, that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th, 1826 – exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted – is pretty amazing. The two had been ill for some time and, as a testament to how important the date July 4th had become and the power of mind over the body, both held on until that day, expiring as others celebrated.