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Redlining the Declaration (A Greatest Hit)

Originally run on his private blog way back in 2011, Burt Likko offers an editor’s view of the organic document of the United States of America.

thomas jefferson photo

Thomas Jefferson, young and handsome, and just a little bit smug? He would have been roughly the same age as illustrated in this portrait when he was given the honor of writing the first draft of what became the Declaration of Independence.
Image by The British Library

One often refers to Thomas Jefferson as the “principal author” or sometimes even less accurately as simply the “author” of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the Declaration was the work of the entire Second Continental Congress; it formed a committee which then gave the first draft to Jefferson.

Thanks to modern technology, it is now a trivial exercise to visually compare Jefferson’s first draft of the document with what finally came out. It is a more inductive and inexact process to evaluate what those revisions reflect. They tell us something about what was in Jefferson’s mind, and they tell us something about what was in the mind of the assembled fifty-six delegates collectively — to the extent that collective intent in a deliberative political body can ever be ascertained at all, a questionable proposition right out of the starting gate.

This is an inherently inexact and speculative process. I’ve tried to approach it with the goal of intellectual honesty in mind – maybe the revisions would lead me to a place I didn’t like, but if that’s what the evidence shows, better to deal with it honestly than to pretend it’s something that it isn’t. What I think I’ve found is Congress inserting into Jefferson’s work a dose of very ambiguous theism, toning down the most incendiary parts, and basically writing for itself the operative language effecting the political split with Britain.

But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself, as we go through the document line by line.

AIn CONGRESS, July 4, 1776,The unanimous Declaration By the Representatives of the United Statesthirteen united STATES of America, in General Congress Assembled.AMERICA,

What kind of a new polity is this? Is it thirteen allied but independent nations? Is it thirteen provinces of a single nation? There was probably some thought about the Netherlands or Switzerland. The best I can figure out here is that something was intended as more than an alliance, but the exact relationship between the states and the national government would not get worked out until – well, I was going to say not until 1868, but the fact is we’re still working that out even today, aren’t we?

When in the courseCourse of human events, it becomes necessary for aone people to advance from that subordination indissolve the political bands which they have hitherto remainedconnected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal and independent station to which the lawsLaws of natureNature and of nature’s godNature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the changeseparation.

Everyone wants to point to this phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and try and read into that phrase some guidance about the role of religion in the government. I’ve got my opinions about both what they wanted and what they created. But while I admit that I have a more secularist bias, this phrase itself seems so ambiguous to me that it is probably best written off as one of those ambiguous phrases constructed to appeal to many different interests at once, and thus of very limited probative value into that controversial question.

The next sentence is more interesting on that subject:

We hold these truths to be self-evident;, that all men are created equal and independent;, that fromthey are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and libertythese are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; thatHappiness.

Jefferson was not the author of the phrase “endowed by their Creator.” It appears that this language came out of the committee charged with drafting the Declaration, which means the language came from one of the other committee members – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, or Robert Livingston. Franklin’s religiosity was as malleable over time as Jefferson’s seems to have been, and it remains unclear if Franklin was in 1776 a devout believer or a skeptic. But Adams, Livingston, and Sherman were all devout Christians of some kind or another, and it would have been in character for any of them to have wanted a more explicit reference to the divine as moral justification for what, had they failed, would have been treason.

Still, I note that the word “Creator” rather than “God” was chosen even in a committee and likely a Congress dominated by men who took pride and derived their identities and egos in no small part from their Christianity. There were no Muslims, no Jews, no Hindus, and indeed only two Catholics in the whole committee. It’s very unclear how many of the delegates flirted with or embraced Deism at the time. So again, I think the safe interpretation of collective intent here is that the phrase was chosen for its ambiguity rather than for its clarity.

Especially interesting in these quarters, owing to the deep analysis of libertarian philosophical texts recently, is the striking of the reference to all men being created “independent.”

That to secure these ends, governmentsrights, Governments are instituted among menMen, deriving their just powerpowers from the consent of the governed; that. That whenever any formForm of government shall becomeGovernment becomes destructive of these ends, it is the rightRight of the peoplePeople to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new governmentGovernment, laying it’sits foundation on such principles and organizing it’s powerits powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safetySafety and happinessHappiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governmentsGovernments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes:; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period, and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them to arbitrary powerunder absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such governmentGovernment, and to provide new guardsGuards for their future security.

As a theoretical matter, notice the appeal to natural law as a justification both moral and legal for declaring independence. Libertarians in particular will also notice the reference to the formation of a voluntary mutual governmental association as the legitimate foundation of government, and can credibly argue that this document represents an example of that happening in reality rather than as a theoretical construct.

Such has been the patient sufferingssufferance of the coloniesthese Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to expungealter their former systemsSystems of government. theGovernment. The history of histhe present majestyKing of Great Britain [George III] is a history of unremittingrepeated injuries and usurpations, among which no one fact stands single or solitary to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest, all of which havehaving in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyrannyTyranny over these statesStates. To prove this, let factsFacts be submitted to a candid world, for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.

If anything, Jefferson’s original language here is milder than what was eventually adopted. Contrast this with the peroration, infra. Congress makes a more strongly worded attack on the King. Congress also seemed to really like Using Capital Letters As A Form Of Emphasis As Though They Lacked The Ability To Italicize:

He has refused his assentAssent to lawsLaws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good:.

He has forbidden his governorsGovernors to pass lawsLaws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assentAssent should be obtained;, and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected utterly to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other lawsLaws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representationRepresentation in the legislatureLegislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only:.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

This addition to Jefferson’s draft is a reference to the dissolution of the government of Boston in the wake of the Boston Tea Party. The colonial government was re-seated at Salem by orders of General Gage; Gage kept the colonial archives in Boston, however, which meant that if the delegates of the local legislature had wanted to consult the laws on the books, they would have had to have sent a messenger to Boston to do the research and report back what was discovered. This would have been a means of emasculating the legislature in Salem, effectively placing power to control local governments in the hands of Massachusetts’ military governor.

The committee draft of this language seems to be in Jefferson’s handwriting. The best guess here is that Jefferson simply passed over this issue in his first run-through and that he agreed later that it needed to be included as one of George’s offenses. After all, the list of grievances concerning the ability of the colonists to form local governments for themselves goes on at some length:

He has dissolved Representatives housesRepresentative Houses repeatedly and continually, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people:.

He has refused for a long space of time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected,; whereby the legislativeLegislative powers, incapable of annihilationAnnihilation, have returned to the peoplePeople at large for their exercise,; the stateState remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within:.

He has endeavoredendeavoured to prevent the population of these statesStates; for that purpose obstructing the lawsLaws for naturalization for foreignersNaturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither;, and raising the conditions of new appropriationsAppropriations of lands:Lands.

Then we get into the longest list of grievances, those relating to the courts and the hands-on administration of law:

He has sufferedobstructed the administrationAdministration of justice totally to cease in some of these colonies,Justice, by refusing his assentAssent to lawsLaws for establishing judiciary powers:Judiciary Powers.

He has made our judgesJudges dependent on his willWill alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries:.

He has erected a multitude of new offices by a self-assumed powerNew Offices, and sent hither swarms of officersOfficers to harass our people, and eat out their substance:.

He has kept among us, in times of peace standing armies and ships of war:, Standing Armies, without the consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the military,Military independent of and superior to the civilCivil power:.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitutionsconstitution and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assentAssent to their Acts of pretended acts of legislation, forLegislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops amongamoung us;

For protecting them by a mock-trial Trial from punishment for any murdersMurders which they should commit on the in habitantsInhabitants of these states; States:


For cutting off our tradeTrade with all parts of the world;

For imposing taxesTaxes on us without our consent; Consent:


For depriving us in many cases of the benefits of trialTrial by jury; Jury:


For transporting us beyond seasSeas to be tried for pretended offenses; offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

It’s always struck me as interesting that the Founders would have looked to Quebec this way – colonists in Quebec had expressed little interest in joining the independence effort although, to be fair, they had little opportunity since that colony was under direct military governance with no local legislature at all. There was never a serious consideration of including Quebec in the breakaway nation and the issue seemed to come up as a matter of example – “this is what we fear will happen to us.”

As with the Salem Legislature passage above, it seems fair to say that Jefferson simply forgot the Quebec issue in his initial draft, which may well have been somewhat hurried.

For taking away our charters,Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the formsForms of our governments; Governments:

For suspending our own legislaturesLegislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever:.

He has abdicated governmentGovernment here, withdrawing his governors, and by declaring us out of his allegianceProtection and protection:waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coastsCoasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people:.

He is at this time transporting large armiesArmies of foreign mercenariesMercenaries to compleatcomplete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the headHead of a civilizecivilized nation:.

He has endeavoredconstrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

Impressment into the Royal Navy was going to be an issue again in 1812. Sometimes, war doesn’t settle things right away, especially when one side only needs to fight to a draw.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savagesSavages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions of existence:

It’s worth remembering that Indian tribes were, in relative terms, reasonably prosperous and reasonably able to mount war efforts. Machinations between tribes had been manipulated by English, Dutch, French, and Spanish colonists for over 150 years and many times the Europeans were the catspaws of the tribes, not the other way around. By 1776, it was clear that, at least east of the Appalachians, the English were dominant, but the various tribes could still put up a good fight and they had been important players in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War (which we Americans still call the French and Indian war, named after Britain’s opponents in that part of the world). So this charge about using alliances with the Indian tribes as a means of rule by terror was serious business.

So far, Jefferson’s language has done pretty well. But from this point forward, we see some substantial deviance from what Jefferson initially proposed:

He has incited treasonable insurrections of our fellow citizens, with the allurements of forfeiture and confiscation of our property:

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 thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: 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 has 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.

In every stage of these oppressions weOppressions We have petitionedPetitioned for redressRedress in the most humble terms; our. Our repeated petitionsPetitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A princePrince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrantTyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free. Future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man, adventured within the short compass of twelve years only, on so many acts of tyranny without a mask, over a people fostered and fixed in principles of liberty people.

Nor have weWe been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend aan unwarrantable jurisdiction over these our states.us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here, no one of which could warrant so strange a pretension: that these were effected at the expense of our own blood and treasure, unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain: that in constituting indeed our several forms of government, we had adopted one common king, thereby laying a foundation for perpetual league and amity with them: but that submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution, nor ever in idea, if history may be credited: and we. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, as well as toand we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which were likely towould inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence and connection.. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity, and when occasions have been given them, by the regular course of their laws, of removing from their councils the disturbers of our harmony, they have by their free election re-established them in power. 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 to 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 and to glory is open to all of us too; we will climb it apart from them, and, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our eternal separation!Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

Jefferson’s first two sentences of the getting-down-to-business part of the document made it through pretty much intact. But the “blood and treasure” line (did that phrase originate with Jefferson?) got stricken, probably because in fact a disproportionate part of the price in blood and treasure paid for the Seven Years’ War really was paid by the mother country. Nor would it have been strictly true to say that the colonies were founded without financial, military, or other assistance from the Crown. Jefferson is similarly guilty of glossing over his history, and his law, by saying that the colonies had never submitted to Parliament.

The next portion, referring to the presence of the active-duty army in the colonies, I’m willing to bet got stricken because the rest of Congress wanted to eventually make peace with Britain and thought that Jefferson’s language was a bit too accusatory, too florid, and too undiplomatic. They need not have been thus concerned; much worse was said in wars between European powers, but the point is still correct – after making the case that the colonies were revolting against England to preserve their rights as Englishmen, it would have been unseemly to condemn Englishmen.

We, therefore, the representativesRepresentatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the nameName, and by the authority of the good peoplePeople of these states, rejectColonies, solemnly publish and renounce all allegiancedeclare.

Here, we see Congress adding in a reference to the divine again, where initially Jefferson had left it out. Once again, the identity of the divinity is left obscured – the “Supreme Judge of the world” invokes the role of the Christian deity’s role as judge of the moral worth of the living and the dead; but it is ambiguous enough that any theist would see in that phrase their own god, and notions of “Providence” and “Justice” as abstract concepts could, without too great a stretch, be read into that phrase.

That these United Colonies are, and subjectionof Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the kings of Great Britain and all others who may hereafter claim by, through, or under them; we utterly dissolveBritish Crown, and break offthat all political connection which may have heretofore subsisted between usthem and the people or parliamentState of Great Britain; is and finally we do assert and declare these coloniesought to be freetotally dissolved; and that as Free and independent statesIndependent States, they shall hereafter have full powerPower to levy warWar, conclude peacePeace, contract alliancesAlliances, establish commerceCommerce, and to do all other actsActs and thingsThings which independent statesIndependent States may of right do.

These last, and the only politically operative, clauses took heavy revision. I think these clauses benefitted substantially from it, too. The finalized version is shorter, more direct, less legal and more political, and reconciles the claim of moral and legal right in a way that Jefferson did not (or that he thought he had done enough of elsewhere in the document).

And for the support of this declaration we Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our livesLives, our fortunesFortunes, and our sacred honourHonor.

Once again, Congress adds in “Divine Providence” where Jefferson had completely omitted it.

jefferson religion photo

A copy of the Jefferson Bible on exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution. At some point after his Presidency, Jefferson used a scissors to remove all of the references to the supernatural from one of his Bibles as an experiment to isolate its moral teachings. The extent to which this conformed to his personal beliefs, at any stage of his life, is unclear, and deliberately so. Image by Tim Evanson Redlining the Declaration (A Greatest Hit)

To the extent the Declaration is cited as evidence of Jefferson’s religiosity, then, the redlining significantly detracts from that. Jefferson the man went to some length to obscure his religiosity anyway, so this should not be a gigantic surprise. To the extent the Declaration reveals the religiosity of Congress as a whole, its uses the phrases “god of nature and nature’s god,” “divine providence,” and “supreme judge of the world.” These are phrases with particular meanings in historical context and they are not explicitly “God” – they could refer to the Christian God, but they could refer to something else, too.

To the extent the Declaration is credited to Jefferson, moreover, the redlining demonstrates that while he clearly played an important role in the document, it should not be credited to Jefferson alone. Some other people, both at the committee and at the whole Congress level, made substantial contributions to it. This is not surprising, given that Jefferson probably put less than a day’s worth of writing into his original draft. Which, in turn, was a pretty remarkable feat, notwithstanding the later editing by committee and further editing by Congress.

Humanizing the work of the Founders takes them out of the realm of myth and legend, and grounds them in human and political reality. But this does not make them any less heroes, in my mind. It enhances their status as heroes. If they really were the demigods legend makes them out to be, it would be harder to relate to them. Jefferson’s genius with words and ideas is much more admirable and interesting because he was a human being with limitations and frailties and weaknesses and contradictions, the greatest of which was his inability to personally actualize his moral abhorrence of slavery. If he were endowed with supernatural genius rather than the more human kind, he is separated from us and becomes an ideal instead of a person we can understand and relate to, an exemplar susceptible of emulation.

That is why I look at the Declaration as a human act, a political act, every year. It does honor to the Founders and it fulfills their wishes that we consider them in a light of this nature. Too many people don’t consider them at all; too many of the ones who do cannot distance themselves from the legendary thinking and ground the Founders’ actions in reality. They would profit from doing so.

fireworks photo

“I believe that [July 4] will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” — John Adams.
Image by bayasaa Redlining the Declaration (A Greatest Hit)

To non-U.S. Readers, you’re always welcome to join in our festivities. Including any British folks – this was, after all, more than two centuries ago, and we meant it then when we said that we should be “in Peace, Friends” and for the most part, we have been. Allow me to propose that peoples of all the world will benefit from reading the Declaration; it purports to describe natural and universal rights and the circumstances under which honor and justice allow, and indeed demand, that a free people fight for these things.


To my U.S. Readers, have a happy and safe Fourth of July and thanks for taking a moment to reflect on what the holiday is really all about. It’s easy to enjoy the day off work, the good food and relaxing times with friends and family – but it’s valuable and important to remember why we have a holiday today. Our Founders were facing some serious problems, and had to take among the gravest of actions to solve them. An important political step along that difficult road was the creation of this document, and its articulation of ideals that remains fresh and vital today.

Feature Image by The U.S. National Archives.

Very light editing from the original — BL, 7/4/2016. Happy Independence Day, everyone.

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Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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17 thoughts on “Redlining the Declaration (A Greatest Hit)

  1. I’m increasingly surprised that many prominent activists in the black community didn’t come together to create a list of grievances echoing the Declaration of Independence from the time of Reconstruction up until the Civil Rights Movement.

    Given the presence of vigilantes and later a heavy police presence often unrepresentative of the community they were policing. A lack of representation in governing bodies despite also being subject to taxation, without many if any dollars coming back to the community it would seem like an obvious move.

    If that did occur and I’m simply ignorant of it someone please point me to it. Otherwise I’d say it’s a hell of a testament to the commitment folks had to the nation even when the nation didn’t have a commitment to them.

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  2. As you probably know by now, I’m of a different persuasion and don’t really see the “founders” as heroes. Still, I can agree with this:

    Humanizing the work of the Founders takes them out of the realm of myth and legend, and grounds them in human and political reality….If they really were the demigods legend makes them out to be, it would be harder to relate to them.

    And this:

    That is why I look at the Declaration as a human act, a political act, every year….Too many people don’t consider them at all; too many of the ones who do cannot distance themselves from the legendary thinking and ground the Founders’ actions in reality. They would profit from doing so.

    Great post, Burt.

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  3. The Quebec thing was straight trolling. The Brits had recently got formal control of it as spoils of the 7 Years / French & Indian War, and had a small number of Anglo phone settlers there, but the majority of the population was, of course, still French in language and customs.

    The Brits didn’t have the numeric superiority they had in the Maritimes to do the same ethnic cleansing in Upper Canada, so to keep the peace, they passed an Act so that the Franco Americans to have a great deal of cultural autonomy and self governance – which they did differently from the British Americans.

    The complaints about immigration (too little) and Native Americans (too many) are of the same sort of missing the forest for the trees. (& deliberately for selfish reasons). The Brits didn’t have the wherewhithal after the 7 years war to maintain security of Brit settlers in the Trans Appalachia, so they set up a demacarcation line on the Blue Ridge, saying via treaty that, in essence, white people would stay east of the line, and Native Americans would have free reign west of it.

    The Brit settlers were violating this treaty willy nilly, naturally provoking a Native American repsonse, and the settlers are now complaining that the Crown isn’t protecting them.

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  4. I noticed that you struck some parts that you found to be factually inaccurate.

    How many of the factual inaccuracies do you think were for the sake of propaganda/rhetoric/drumming up support for the cause? Do you think making the Declaration of Independence more factually accurate takes away from the power of the prose and the cause?

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  5. I read in LGM that the language added about “domestic insurrections among us” next to the Indian language, refers to slave insurrections?

    I don’t always believe LGM, so any view about that?

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