Originally created 07/04/96

Truth aboutJefferson and Declaration not so self-evident



To Thomas Jefferson, these truths were not "self-evident"; they were "sacred and undeniable."

And if he had gotten his way, America would have condemned slavery instead of bowing to delegates from Southern states.

On the 220th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence today, what most Americans consider a profound and stirring statement authored by Jefferson shows the marks of a committee and a Congress occasionally swayed by politics, historians say.

In fact, some of the ideas and even the phrases were not original to the Declaration but were borrowed from an earlier patriotic broadside, the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Jefferson lifted phrases and ideas from that document, which was the work of fellow Virginia patriot George Mason, said Gerard Gawalt, specialist in early American history in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

"I wouldn't say it was plagiarism," Mr. Gawalt said. "I think they were all sharing the same ideas."

The members of the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia that summer in 1776 with the Revolutionary War already a year old and having already voted to organize an army and navy to fight Great Britain. After Virginia delegate Henry Lee proposed a resolution to declare independence on June 7, a committee of five, including Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, was appointed to draft a declaration. To Jefferson fell the writing of the document and two weeks later he returned to the committee with a draft.

It set out not only the moral and philosophical arguments for liberty but also a list of "indictments" against King George III of England.

The Library of Congress has the only known scrap of Jefferson's working draft, as well as the copy he submitted to Franklin and Adams, Mr. Gawalt said.

By the time the committee and Congress were through, more than 50 changes were made to Jefferson's original draft, Mr. Gawalt said.

Most were minor editing. Franklin inserted the famous phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" for Jefferson's phrase, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable."

But some were significant, especially dropping a scathing indictment against King George for encouraging slavery in the colonies, Mr. Gawalt said.

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights 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," the original Declaration read.

Jefferson would later write that it was dropped at the request of delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, and that Northern colonists were uneasy about their role in transporting slaves.

South Carolina's reasons were economic, said Edward Cashin, local historian and director of the Augusta State University Center for the Study of Georgia History.

"The South Carolina economy depended on rice and indigo, both of which were the products of slave labor," Dr. Cashin. "And Georgia was an emerging plantation economy. Georgia, like South Carolina, hoped to own slaves and own plantations."

It's not very likely that the Georgia delegation exerted much influence on that, however, because they arrived late to the convention. That delegation included two from the Augusta area, George Walton and Lyman Hall.

"They just arrived in time to sign the Declaration," Dr. Cashin said.

Certainly leaving it in might have altered the course of the country's history, Dr. Cashin said. Less than 100 years later, arguments over slavery nearly ripped the country apart. But that can be said of many other historical events, he added.

Delegates at the convention also altered some of Jefferson's indictments so that they focused on the King rather than his country, Mr. Gawalt said.

"They didn't want to appear to be condemning their friends in Britain, for political reasons," Mr. Gawalt said.

For all the meddling, it is still Jefferson's document, though the changes did make it more readable, Mr. Gawalt said.

Not that the author agreed, however.

"He was still complaining 50 years later that if only they hadn't changed certain words, it would have been better," Mr. Gawalt said.