This Fourth of July, I wanted to do something different, so I exhumed three of our Forefathers for a beer.
I dug up Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams because they had written the most important document in human history: the Declaration of Independence. “There were five of us on the drafting committee,” said Adams, “but everyone agreed that Jefferson was the best writer, so we picked him to write the Declaration.”
Franklin and Adams suggested he open with something like this:
When in the course of human events, some people get so fed up with some other people trying to tell them what to do all the time, and they don’t want to have anything to do with those people anymore, by god, they have the right to tell those other people, like you, George, to ‘Kiss our sweet cheeks.’ You are a sterling example of what happens when we mix royal inbreeding with small doses of arsenic. But before we go, we thought you, you putrid pile of pusillanimous pustules, should know why we are leaving. Mainly, it’s because we are just as good as you are, you effete foppish prig, and we have every right to do whatever we want to do, which includes drinking untaxed tea and good wine, and making candles and love and shoeing horses and flying kites whenever and wherever and with whomever we please, you insane steaming pile of horsehockey. Etc., etc., etc.
Franklin explained, “This was to give Jefferson an idea of the tone we wanted.”
With that in mind, Jefferson repaired to his rented rooms in Philadelphia to spend the next two and a half weeks, rising before the sun each day for tea and biscuits, to write with a quill dipped in ink, scratching on parchment, ripping up page after page after page, trying to get it right. He told me, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words where one will do.” The pages of his rough drafts look like pages from a Hemingway manuscript, cut to pieces with crossouts, arrows, and insertions of line after eloquent line. Baby America in ink. He begins slowly:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . . .
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.
Then he states his business:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it . . . it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
One of my favorite lines is the pivotal point:
. . . let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
As all good writers do, Jefferson then lays out facts: that King George has refused, forbidden, called, endeavoured, made, obstructed, erected, kept, affected, combined; that he has exceeded his authority by quartering, cutting, imposing, depriving, transporting, taking, abolishing, altering, suspending.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people . . . . In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Then he brings it home and stamps it with resolve:
We, therefore, . . . in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Franklin and Adams agreed it was better than their draft. They took the Declaration to Congress on July 2, and there debate raged until the afternoon of July 4. The cuts were mostly for content, like Jefferson’s section attacking the slave trade.
It is a fine choice of words up to the task of birthing the strongest nation on earth. Click here to read them, not because they are the cornerstone of our democracy, but because they are an example of the power of words, only 1323 of them--the length of the average writing assignment for a high school sophomore.
PostScript: The two men most responsible for our Declaration of Independence, later our second and third Presidents, Adams and Jefferson, with disparate personalities and politics (Jefferson defeated Adams in Adams’s bid for a second term), died within hours of each other, exactly fifty years later, on the Fourth of July.
Happy Fourth. And be safe.