THOMAS JEFFERSON will get a lot of love today as the author of the Declaration of Independence. But, argues a new book on that document, “The monumental achievement of Thomas Jefferson is, ultimately, to have produced a first draft.”
The author of “Our Declaration,” Danielle Allen, notes that Jefferson shared his draft with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who offered suggestions. It then went through the Committee of Five and on to Congress, which from July 2 to July 4 edited the Declaration extensively, “much to Jefferson’s chagrin.” Congress cut about a quarter of Jefferson’s words, added some references to divinity and took out a section attacking slavery. “With changes such as these — with God edited in and a condemnation of slavery elided — Congress achieved a text that the men of that day and age could live with, including Jefferson grumpily,” Ms. Allen writes.
Before TJ’s army rises in defense, let us make clear that Ms. Allen, a political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., means all this as a compliment — to Jefferson and, even more, to the process that produced the Declaration. Jefferson produced a work of such “philosophical integrity and unquestionable brilliance” that it could survive the “intense committee work.” And the committee work reflected the Founders’ belief in equality. The Declaration was a product of months and months of incessant discussion and argument and committee meetings, not only in Philadelphia but throughout the 13 colonies, among people of many stations. This process of “democratic writing,” Allen writes, was “exhausting and draining” but merits celebration. “There is no other way for a free and equal people to chart its course. Our only chance to achieve collective happiness comes through extensive conversation punctuated here and there with votes, which will themselves over time, in their imperfection, simply demand of us more talk.”
That prescription may leave a bitter taste in Washington today, when leaders hold few votes of significance and talk seems mostly at each other, over each other, against each other — anything but with each other. But the Declaration carries a lesson also never to depend too heavily on the wisdom of leaders. When the Founders were assembling the list of grievances that makes up the bulk of the Declaration, Ms. Allen reminds us, they solicited evidence and testimony from up and down the Atlantic coast in a version of what today we might call crowdsourcing. “Democratic conversations need experts,” she writes, but also “social knowledge, which everyone possesses.”
The Declaration of Independence posits the right of a people to create a government “most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” This rested on a radical notion, Ms. Allen points out: “As judges of our own happiness, we are equals.” With that assertion came a sobering reality, “the unrelenting work for which each of us, in face of this equality, must take responsibility.” It’s easy to blame President Obama or House Speaker John A. Boehner, in other words, but ultimately, it’s on us.
That’s daunting, but for 238 years Americans have made it work. “I have Reasons to believe that no Colony, which shall assume a Government under the People, will give it up,” John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, in 1776. So far he’s been right.