Episode 14: Early Drafts of the Declaration of Independence

Host: Henry A. Wiencek, Assistant Editor, Not Even Past
Guest: Robert Olwell, Associate Professor, Department of History

One of the "Dunlap broadsides"

The Declaration of Independence is arguably one of the most recognizable documents in American history, quoted and recited often. But the first draft that Thomas Jefferson wrote contained passages that were edited and deleted by the Continental Congress before its approval. What did they say? What might have been different about the early Republic if they were left in? And is there really a treasure map hidden on the back of the original document?

Guest Robert Olwell from UT’s Department of History takes a deeper look to get insight into Jefferson, the workings of the Congress, and the psyche of the American colonists on the eve of revolution—plus, we’ll put that whole treasure map thing to rest once and for all.

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Standards Alignment | Transcript | Documents and Further Reading


The Declaration of Independence is arguably one of the most recognizable and oft-quoted documents in American History—”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and so forth—but what might not be so recognizable is the first version of the Declaration that Thomas Jefferson wrote. Could you talk about that draft, the background of that draft, and how it was different?

Everyone knows that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but what isn’t remembered as well is that what we read, when you go to the National Archives or when you see it in a textbook, what we read is not entirely what Jefferson wrote. That is, it’s a product of a committee, in fact, Congress meeting as a committee of the whole considered it. Jefferson presented his draft to them on June 28 and they debated it, really line by line, and made substantial changes, mostly deletion. So, it’s interesting to compare what Jefferson originally wrote and what Congress decided they wanted to say.


Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence.

So, in terms of the language of the original draft, where do we see the differences between the draft and the final version that we’re all familiar with?

The most famous of the deletions is a long paragraph that he writes–if people remember the structure of the Declaration, it’s basically kind of a divorce petition, right? There’s the preamble, which everyone has heard—”When in the course of human events,” which lays out the cause—and then there’s a long section that is rarely read anymore justifying, and laying all the blame for the problems on the king. This long section, really the main body of the Declaration, is where all of these clauses begin, “He has,” “He” being the king, so: “He has,” and then the crimes he has done toward America.

Some of these are quite obscure. But the one that everyone knows what he’s referring to is the one where he [Jefferson] blames the king for slavery. This is a paragraph—it’s probably the longest of the “he has”-es, or the causes of justifications.

I’ll read just a little bit of it to get a sense of Jefferson’s language:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s 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 hither. 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 to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon 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.

So, there’s all kinds of things going on there: what is Jefferson talking about, and why did he put it in there? And then, of course, why did Congress decide that it was better left unsaid?

There is a striking difference in his language—or, let’s say, in his tone in this paragraph. We can see this in words like “execrable commerce,” “prostituted his negative,” much more emotional, violent language than we’ve seen. Up til now, the Declaration has had kind of a lawyerly tone, but here we get this very emotional passage.

What does Jefferson, first of all writing this passage, and then his editors, so to speak, removing this passage—what does this process tell us about how the founders viewed slavery at this point and how they were trying to deal with that issue?

Well, one things that it shows us is that slavery was an issue. That not only were Americans themselves thinking about it, but in their ten-year long argument with Britain, the British had often thrown slavery in the Americans’ face as a sign of American hypocrisy. “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from drivers of Negroes,” is the famous jibe from Samuel Johnson–and those things had stung! In some places, Americans talked about needing to do something about slavery, and Jefferson himself talks about it in other places.

You can look at the Declaration as a piece of rhetoric as well as a political document—so Jefferson is trying to get the last word in this argument. He’s anticipating the jibe—Jefferson, as everyone knows, was a slaveholder himself—and he’s trying to turn it on to the British.

The gist of his passage is that slavery is Britain’s sin, it’s Britain’s crime because it’s a British ship that went to Africa and captured the slaves, and then brought them to Virginia. The Americans, in a sense, are saying, “You started it.”  He’s also speaking a little bit about the fact that in the fall of 1775, the royal governor of Virginia, Dunmore, had offered freedom to the slaves of rebel masters who would fight for the king—Jefferson talks about this “double crime” that now that they’ve enslaved these people, the British are instigating them to rise up and murder Americans. So, Jefferson is doing all of these things, and Congress reads it … and doesn’t want it.

The classic explanation is the one that you’ll see if you watch the musical 1776, which is that the Deep South—the Carolinas—were determined that, after the revolution was over, they would reopen the slave trade. Obviously, this long paragraph, which was primarily an attack on the Atlantic slave trade, would make that if not impossible, at least hypocritical.

But, another reason that it’s cut out is that it doesn’t work. That is, it doesn’t take long to think about before you start thinking that it’s a trade, it’s the slave trade, that is, the British may have gone to Africa and brought slaves back on a British ship, but they’re selling them! When they arrive in Virginia, they’re finding eager buyers! So, I can also say that Congress is recognizing that slavery is a weak point in the argument—it might be the Achilles heel here. You’re not solving the problem here, but you’re drawing attention to it.

Both for political reasons—the Deep South wants to re-open the trade—but also for rhetorical reasons, this passage–no matter heartfelt from Jefferson, and you can see Jefferson almost trying to expunge the sin of slavery and scapegoat it away by giving it to the British. If we were going to give Jefferson the benefit of the doubt, we might say that it’s so bitter and violent in its language that, even though it’s directed at the slave trade, it’s obvious that slavery itself is by implication odious. We might see this as Jefferson trying to make an anti-slavery move … and Congress just wasn’t ready for it.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is one of the most often quoted and probably one of the most familiar phrases in American history, but in fact it might have been appropriated from another quote that was slightly different. Can you talk a little about that?”

Jefferson made the change in his hotel room. There is a change there, but it’s one that the Congress allowed to stand. As Jefferson knew—and as anyone at the time would have known—the idea of natural rights would be drawn from John Locke and others. Locke himself was very influential and had detailed three rights that were natural, inherent, and inalienable. For Locke, they were life, liberty, and property. It’s always struck me as interesting that Jefferson makes an editorial decision of his own, in his study in Philadelphia, when he wrote his draft. He writes “life” and “liberty,” but then he doesn’t write “property,” instead writing this rather strange phrase “pursuit of happiness.”

That’s had scholars scratching their heads ever since. Why did he do that? What did he mean by it? Some people say that, by “happiness,” he meant “property,” but that strikes me as unlikely since property was already the obvious word and must have been on the tip of his quill pen. Some have said that “happiness” is an attempt to talk about a social good, happiness for the many—a sort of Scottish Enlightenment idea. This is what Gary Wills argued in his book.

I’ve wondered if it ties back to Jefferson’s pondering of slavery. If Jefferson is interested in possibly leaving the door open to attack slavery later on, he probably would have thought, “If I write property here as an inalienable natural right that predates and supersedes government, it will be difficult, since slaves are property, for any government to act against slavery in the future.”

Maybe what made him write happiness there was a desire to leave that door open because, as we have done, we can ask what we mean by the pursuit of happiness. For whom? For the individual, for the community? Is it a social good? If it’s a social good and it’s a collective happiness, there’s a possibility at least that individual property rights would have to bend to the general good, especially where it concerns slaves. That also ties back to the classical Republican ideas that were in the air in 1776, the idea of a common-wealth of shared interests of citizens.

One of the really fascinating things about Jefferson’s draft is how he approaches Britain and the king. You described it as a divorce, almost, and there’s a degree of sadness in the language and the fact that there was this separation between Britain and America. Can you talk a bit about the emotions behind that language?

This is the other big deletion by the Congress from Jefferson’s original draft. It’s a part where he approaches to the emotion, as you say, of the moment. He’s at this point speaking directly to the British people. The king is at blame, but in a sense he’s also saying that the British people are to blame for not coming to our help. He turns to them and says to them:

we appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, as well as to the ties of our common kindred  … they too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity {Common blood} …

and then there’s this section that was deleted:

at this very time too they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and deluge us in blood. these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. we might have been a free and a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity. be it so, since they will have it: the road to happiness is open to us too …

Wow. Almost sounds like a jilted lover there! I think there’s this assumption now that Americans were really desperate to separate themselves from Britain and regarded Britain as an enemy. This document really shows that, despite the conflicts, there was a degree to which Jefferson and a lot of Americans really wanted to reconcile, and were sad—for lack of a better word—that they could not.

I think you’re right. One member of the Congress, on the day they voted to adopt independence, wrote in his diary that, “I’ve been crying all day. I feel like a young son forced by the hand of his father’s violence out into a cruel world.”

If you look at the way the argument had been going on between the colonies and Britain for ten years or more, the colonists had been insisting all along that they were British, that they had the rights of Britons, that traveling across the ocean had not stripped them of their rights. Jefferson himself insisted that in his Summary of the Rights of British Americans (1774), and in a way, you could almost say that “American” was a pejorative. “American” was being thrown about mostly by the British as a way of saying “You’re not British. You’re something different,” and, of course, something less. So, the grand irony is that at the end of the Declaration, the colonists were saying, “You’re right. You win the argument. We’re not British. We’re American. But, we’re also equal. We’re as good as you are, but we’re going to be separate.”

The Congress cut that out. Why? I guess because it’s a lament. It’s a lament for what might have been. It’s looking backward, and it’s too emotional. “Manly spirit” must be prevailing here, as Jefferson himself says there.

This is a more difficult and hypothetical question, but let’s assume that these changes remained in the Declaration and became the final draft of the Declaration. How do you think that might have changed the United States government and some of the values that we have, especially with respect to slavery?

That’s the one that strikes you as the most important. If that paragraph had remained, the Declaration would have been much more explicitly anti-slavery than it turned out to be. There was the “all men are created equal,” and they debated what you mean by “equal,” what they meant by “men.” That phrase had anti-slavery implications, but nothing as explicit as that paragraph would have been. The United States would have taken an anti-slavery stand which, as the South Carolinian delegates feared, might have made it difficult to resume the slave trade after the war (which they did do). It might have been easier for the national government to propose anti-slavery legislation.

Given the edits, as you describe it, what do you think that says about how Americans wanted to present themselves? What were they trying to accomplish by this Declaration of Independence, and what message were they trying to project to the world?

In some ways, the Declaration is necessary as a piece of politics and diplomacy. As they discussed at the time, they wanted to get foreign aid (specifically French), and that wouldn’t be possible until we nailed our colors to the mast. If we were still arguing that we were British and arguing for some measure of imperial reform, the French weren’t going to be interested in helping us.  If we declared ourselves an independence country, then that became a possibility. Even in Common Sense, Paine is saying that this would be the fruit of independence is that we’ll be able to get aid from France.

The structure of the document is, one could argue, so much more than it needed to be. It’s become a famous document because it’s so eloquent, especially the beginning. It justifies what they were doing in their own mind. I’m not actually sure if it persuaded many people. People who were inclined to be patriots, of course, liked it—Washington had it read aloud to the troops, and so on. Loyalists tended to dislike it, and especially tended to get into the “he has” clauses and show how some of them were specious, or at least not really that serious a grievance. You can find point by point loyalist rebuttals.

One of the "Dunlap broadsides"

One of the “Dunlap broadsides”

Finally, there are some strange marks on the original draft of the Declaration. Can you talk about what happened there?

There was a movie a few years ago called National Treasure where there was supposedly a hidden map or message on the back of the Declaration. It’s kind of a fun movie that way. What’s interesting is that, although there’s not a secret treasure or a secret map, there is, in a weird way, a hidden secret in the Declaration of Independence. It’s a secret that was kept, or not noticed for 200 years. It was only in 1976 that someone “broke the code,” as it were.

What you’d notice is: if you look at the famous printed version-the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence: they wanted to get the word out, so they rushed a copy to the press and the printer in Philadelphia was named John Dunlap, so these are the Dunlap broadsides (they’re worth millions now). He printed up a couple of hundred very quickly.

If you have a copy of one—they’re easy to get online or in gift shops—one of the things you’ll notice is that there are some inexplicably large spaces scattered throughout the document. More than you’d need to justify the margins, so there are these gaps. And then a scholar went back and found Dunlap’s first print run–it was set to type and he printed a copy before he mass produced it, and sent the copy to someone in the Congress, and they changed it. The first print is different from subsequent prints. What’s different is that, where those spaces are in the big print run that we have, in the original print there are quotation marks, even though they don’t make any sense in terms of what’s in the document.

Then, people went back to Jefferson’s reading copy. Jefferson, as the author of the Declaration, was tasked with the job of reading it aloud to the Congress before they started to debate it. We know that Jefferson was a terrible public speaker and incredibly shy about it. So, in his usual methodical way, he had marked his draft with these dashes which were to indicate to him where to pause, in order to maximize the rhetorical effect. There’s a whole lore in the 18th century about rhetoric and oratory that Jefferson was very aware of. So what’s fascinating is that Jefferson marked and wrote the Declaration almost like a piece of music, like with a kind of meter–the pace you’re supposed to keep–to help himself read it aloud. It’s assumed that, in their haste to get it to the press, Jefferson’s copy with these speaking marks had been sent to the printer by mistake, or at least no one had told the printer not to bother with the dashes. And so the printer, seeing these dashes, thought that these were quotations, and thought, “Well, this was in the text I was given, so I’m going to put them in the printed version.”

So, according to the most recent scholarship, there is no national treasure map?

No, not yet. They haven’t applied the lemon juice to the back to see if anything pops up. So, there is at least that sense, if you wanted to be romantic, of Jefferson’s voice reading the text aloud to us.

Documents and Further Reading

The Charters of Freedom: The Declaration of Independence. Excellent online exhibit by the U.S. National Archives.

Carl Becker,  The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922)

Jay Fleigelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language and the Culture of Performance (1993)

Pauline Maier, American Scripture: How America Declared Its Independence from Britain (1999)

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2009)

Standards Alignment

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills:
This podcast addresses the following elements of Celebrate Freedom week (Texas social studies, grades 3-12):

State and federal laws mandate a variety of celebrations and observances, including Celebrate Freedom Week.

(A)  Each social studies class shall include, during Celebrate Freedom Week as provided under the TEC, §29.907, or during another full school week as determined by the board of trustees of a school district, appropriate instruction concerning the intent, meaning, and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in their historical contexts. The study of the Declaration of Independence must include the study of the relationship of the ideas expressed in that document to subsequent American history, including the relationship of its ideas to the rich diversity of our people as a nation of immigrants, the American Revolution, the formulation of the U.S. Constitution, and the abolitionist movement, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the women’s suffrage movement.

(B)  Each school district shall require that, during Celebrate Freedom Week or other week of instruction prescribed under subparagraph (A) of this paragraph, students in Grades 3-12 study and recite the following text: “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–That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”

This podcast addresses the following standards in the Texas 8th grade U.S. History course:

(1)  History. The student understands traditional historical points of reference in U.S. history through 1877. The student is expected to:

(A)  identify the major eras and events in U.S. history through 1877, including colonization, revolution, drafting of the Declaration of Independence, creation and ratification of the Constitution, religious revivals such as the Second Great Awakening, early republic, the Age of Jackson, westward expansion, reform movements, sectionalism, Civil War, and Reconstruction, and describe their causes and effects;

(B)  apply absolute and relative chronology through the sequencing of significant individuals, events, and time periods; and

(C)  explain the significance of the following dates: 1607, founding of Jamestown; 1620, arrival of the Pilgrims and signing of the Mayflower Compact; 1776, adoption of the Declaration of Independence; 1787, writing of the U.S. Constitution; 1803, Louisiana Purchase; and 1861-1865, Civil War.

(4)  History. The student understands significant political and economic issues of the revolutionary era. The student is expected to:

(B)  explain the roles played by significant individuals during the American Revolution, including Abigail Adams, John Adams, Wentworth Cheswell, Samuel Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, James Armistead, Benjamin Franklin, Bernardo de Gálvez, Crispus Attucks, King George III, Haym Salomon, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, and George Washington;

(C)  explain the issues surrounding important events of the American Revolution, including declaring independence; writing the Articles of Confederation; fighting the battles of Lexington, Concord, Saratoga, and Yorktown; enduring the winter at Valley Forge; and signing the Treaty of Paris of 1783;

15)  Government. The student understands the American beliefs and principles reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and other important historic documents. The student is expected to:

(C)  identify colonial grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence and explain how those grievances were addressed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights;

This podcast addresses the following standards in the Texas high school U.S. government course:

1)  History. The student understands how constitutional government, as developed in America and expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution, has been influenced by ideas, people, and historical documents. The student is expected to:

(B)  identify major intellectual, philosophical, political, and religious traditions that informed the American founding, including Judeo-Christian (especially biblical law), English common law and constitutionalism, Enlightenment, and republicanism, as they address issues of liberty, rights, and responsibilities of individuals;

(C)  identify the individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents, including those of Moses, William Blackstone, John Locke, and Charles de Montesquieu;

(D)  identify the contributions of the political philosophies of the Founding Fathers, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, George Mason, Roger Sherman, and James Wilson, on the development of the U.S. government;

(E)  examine debates and compromises that impacted the creation of the founding documents; and

(F)  identify significant individuals in the field of government and politics, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

National Standards for History, Basic Edition
This podcast addresses the following standards in United States Era 3 (1754-1820s):

Standard 1B: The student understands the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

  • Explain the major ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and their intellectual origins.
  • Demonstrate the fundamental contradictions between the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the realities of chattel slavery.
  • Draw upon the principles in the Declaration of Independence to construct a sound historical argument regarding whether it justified American independence.
  • Explain how key principles in the Declaration of Independence grew in importance to become unifying ideas of American democracy.
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