“In General Congress Assembled”
We were all in haste; Congress was impatient and the Instrument was reported, as I believe in Jeffer—son’s hand writing as he first drew it.
—John Adams, 1822
STATE HOUSE, PHILADELPHIA
July 3, 1776
The heat was rising inside the Pennsylvania State House, in almost every conceivable way. The hot summer sun beat down upon the building, threatening to bake the clay bricks of the outer wall a second time over. Inside, the air was warm, muggy, and stagnant. Flies buzzed about the debating chamber, forcing the delegates to the Continental Congress assembled therein to shoo them away with hands and handkerchiefs, as if they were punctuating their remarks with even more hand gestures than usual.
Their talk was getting heated as well. Since the first of the month, they had been debating the document submitted by the committee appointed to draft it, known as the Committee of Five. The principal author was Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Jefferson’s draft had already gone through a number of revisions by his fellow committee members, particularly at the hands of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Now the entire membership of the Continental Congress was having a go at what would become the opening statement of a new era. All of them were conscious of this document’s significance, and before it was approved, the full Congress wanted to make sure every sentence, every word, was exactly right. They knew that history demanded nothing less of them. And perhaps some of them—being politicians, after all—were anxious to make sure Jefferson’s draft bore their fingerprints as well.
Meanwhile, the paper’s principal author sat sullenly on the sidelines of the debate. Jefferson himself did not engage in the discussion but was rather, in his own recollection, “writhing a little under the acrimonious criticisms” leveled by some of his col- leagues.1 To a writer of such great passion as Jefferson, it was no doubt disheartening to see and hear how his words were being tweaked, prodded, rearranged, and replaced by others.
While most of his fellow delegates were single-mindedly engaged with the editing at hand, Jefferson’s obvious discomfort did not escape the notice of Benjamin Franklin. As a member of the Committee of Five and, along with Adams, one of the first to review Jefferson’s work, Franklin had been responsible for some modest changes of his own. But now that Jefferson’s work had been cast before the whole boisterous Congress, Franklin could see that the Virginian was taking the criticism hard.
At seventy years old, Franklin was the oldest member of the Continental Congress. He felt that his young, talented, but sensitive, friend might benefit from some of the wisdom that came with age. The old Philadelphian, his gray hair down to his shoulders, moving slowly on account of gout, shuffled over to Jefferson and sat down next to him.
“I have made it a rule,” he told Jefferson, “whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.”
Both men knew it was a little late for that advice, but Franklin continued apace: “I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you.” Whether Jefferson in his editorial agony wanted to hear it or not, a story was coming.
“When I was a journeyman printer,” Franklin began, “one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription.”
The friend’s name was John Thompson, and Franklin explained that he sketched out an image of what his sign would look like. It included the words “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” along with a picture of a hat. The design seemed simple enough.
“But,” Franklin continued, “he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments.” Here young John Thompson ran into trouble.
The first friend to take a look felt it unnecessary for Thompson to call himself a “Hatter” on the sign and to say “makes and sells hats for ready money.” Anyone who read that he made and sold hats would know he was a hatter. So Thompson scratched out “Hatter” from the sketch of the sign.
A second friend suggested getting rid of the word makes “because,” as Franklin explained, “his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy by whomsoever made.” “Makes” was thus crossed out.
Thompson’s third friend offered the very practical advice of avoiding the phrase “for ready money,” since it was bad business to sell hats or anything else on credit. Thompson should leave no question that his customers would have to pay, and so that phrase was similarly excised.
“The inscription,” Franklin went on, “now stood ‘John Thomp- son sells hats.’ Sells hats? says his next friend. Nobody will expect you to give them away! What then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board.”
“So,” concluded Franklin, “the inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson’ with the figure of a hat.”
With this amusing story of an eighteenth-century “branding exercise,” Franklin offered some comfort to Jefferson as they watched the other members of Congress argue over the wording of the Declaration of Independence. Like John Thompson the hatter, Jefferson had entrusted his ideas to others, each of whom made their own particular mark upon the original. And like Thompson’s friends, Jefferson’s colleagues in Congress meant no personal affront when they offered their suggestions for improvement. Still, the changes were personally painful to Jefferson.
The sting had not faded even decades later when he referred to them in 1818 as “depredations” and “mutilations” committed against his original text. One of these was the removal of especially brutal language against not just King George III but the British people altogether, whom Jefferson accused of sending “Scotch & foreign mercenaries” to the colonies—which understandably offended Continental Congress delegates of Scottish background. It was true that “foreign mercenaries” had been employed in combat in America, notably soldiers hired from Germany—the ancestral home of George III—who were especially hated by the colonists thanks to their particular zeal for looting and plundering.
Jefferson was so enraged that he wanted to cut all ties with the British, not just political, arguing that “manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unfeeling brethren” and “we must endeavor to forget our former love for them.” This severely Anglophobic language was watered down to preserve the hope of regaining normal relations with Britain in the future, but the final word on the former Mother Country was still Jefferson’s: We would “hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.”
In the end, John Adams recalled, “Congress cut off about a quarter” of the original Declaration and in the process “obliterated some of the best of it.” Historian Julian Boyd observed dryly: “That a public body would reduce rather than increase the number of words in a political document is in itself a remarkable testimony to their sagacity and ability to express themselves.” Usually, the fewer words there are in government documents, the better for the people.