Jefferson’s Declaration

Having completed the reading on the origins of World War I for the moment, I’ve turned next to a rather comprehensive collection of Jefferson’s writings. These start with his autobiography, within which is published his original version of the Declaration of Independence, with indications as to what was removed, and what added, by committee prior to its release to the world.

I want to narrow in on two changes that were made, which I believe indicate – even more than the final document – the magnificence of this man. The first is a single word change in what may be the most important line in the document. The edited version reads:

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…

The original version from Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

I do not believe these statements are identical. While the published version indicates that the rights of Man may not be separated from Man, and that these rights are not changeable with time or circumstance (my interpretation of the use of the word “certain” to mean absolute, not relative), Jefferson’s use of the word “inherent” suggests something significantly different. In Jefferson’s phrasing, it is in the Nature of Man to have these rights.The veryessential being of Man includes the existence of these rights.It is because he is what he is – a being capable of rationality, a fact from which no man can (or should try to) escape – that he is endowed (not by a creator, but by the way of being) with these moral securities against denial of his fundamental requirements for life by other men. The removal of this word then places the burden on the term “unalienable” to subsume this meaning. I do not believe that this term has the same connotation. By unalienable is suggested that there should be no attempt made to separate Man from these rights, but not that it cannot be done by the very definition of what it means to be Man.

I also notice that the word creator is not capitalized in the text. This could be simply a fault of the printing of the collection of papers that I have, while it is certain that in the final published copy this word is capitalized. (It is also true that several other words are capitalized in the published copy, and only words that we now consider proper nouns and the start of sentences are capitalized in the text I have).

The other significant change I saw was in the final paragraph of the document. The published version reads:

And for the support of this declaration, witha firm reliance on the protection of divine providence we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Jefferson’s version:

And for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Elsewhere in the document, God is mentioned only once, and this in the opening paragraph – this is the same in Jefferson’s and the published version:

…and to assume among the powers of the Earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…

Even here, note that the God described is “nature’s God”, not a God associated directly with Man. Of course I am aware of the fact that Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers were Deists – and this fits the description of a Deist quite well. What I had not realized was the fact that the plea for divine intervention (such as it is) is not from Jefferson, but from the committee.

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