Ever since the first writer scratched out a message with a stick in mud, critics have insisted on changing and deleting words. Even those of Thomas Jefferson.
When members of the Continental Congress made changes in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, the 33-year-old Jefferson "was greatly disturbed by these excisions, as well he might have been no matter how excellent the alterations," the late Jefferson historian Julian P. Boyd wrote.
Benjamin Franklin tried to console him with his oft-told favorite story of a hatter's would-be editors:
John Thompson's shop signboard bore the legend "John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money." His friends, invited to criticize, one by one removed a word, until all that was left was "John Thompson" and a drawing of a hat.
The story is included in "The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text," edited by Library of Congress manuscript historian Gerard W. Gawalt.
This revision of Boyd's 1943 work has just been published by the Library of Congress in association with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, "a grant from the Daniel J. Boorstin Fund and the encouragement of Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress emeritus, and his wife and scholarly collaborator, Ruth Boorstin, made this publication possible. In addition, Monticello received support for this project from Mr. and Mrs. Martin S. Davis," Gawalt wrote in the preface.
The new edition shakes the long-held belief that not one of Jefferson's golden words was ever altered.
"Congress was a fairly numerous body and included some men of very acute intelligence," Boyd wrote. " . . . It is difficult to point out a passage in the Declaration, great as it was, that was not improved by the attention. . . . Certainly the final paragraph, considered as parliamentary practice, as political principle, and as literature, was greatly improved by the changes. . . . Congress made the statement politically stronger by assuming in great dignity that Parliament need not be mentioned, since, as the Declaration implied all the way through, the colonies acknowledge a constitutional tie only with the King and that was the only tie that needed to be severed in so solemn a proclamation."
A long-overlooked fragment of the earliest identified draft of the Declaration of Independence was written by Jefferson in mid-June 1776. On the back is Jefferson's description of a stable later constructed at Monticello. On the top Jefferson wrote: "These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection & manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unjust unfeeling brethren."
Boyd discovered the document in the Library of Congress's Jefferson papers in 1947. Sadly, the historian died in May 1980, before he could revise his book.
In the new edition, Gawalt writes: "This brief but important fragment had been preserved unrecognized in the Jefferson papers. The manuscript had been mistakenly filed under a September 1777 date."
Gawalt added, "Heavily edited in Jefferson's own hand, the document proved to be a key component in unraveling the story of the writing of the Declaration of Independence." None of these deletions appears in the version of the Declaration that Jefferson called his "original Rough draught."
Gewalt assured the Chronicler that the new edition of the book, which elaborately traces the changes and includes photo-reproductions of the drafts, does no harm to Jefferson's reputation, though he may not have been reconciled to the changes.
As Jefferson grew older, Gawalt said, "he became more concerned with his role in history. The drafts show Jefferson as the key person. The central core of ideas were written by him. The way it was put together wasn't changed. Credit is due also to Benjamin Franklin, who had direct input. John Adams added two paragraphs, and defended the entire work in Congress."
Jefferson sent his friends copies of the Declaration before Congress altered it. Richard Henry Lee replied by writing, "I wish sincerely, as well as for the honor of Congress, as for that of the States, that the Manuscript had not been mangled as it is."
Boyd's book ends with a decidedly Jeffersonian paragraph:
"We owe this great document not merely to the young Virginian who, at 33, was already committed to 'eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,' but also to a whole generation of men who dared to embrace the stern right of revolution and to proclaim to their world and to posterity the high reasons for their daring."
Jefferson's original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, with emendations by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, is on display in "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" in the library's Thomas Jefferson Building through Sept. 4, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except federal holidays. "The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text" is sold in the library shop and other bookstores.
CAPTION: The truths in the Declaration of Independence may have been self-evident, but their wording was not.