In the summer of 1776, five men were charged with writing a statement to express the case for independence. The Committee of Five asked Thomas Jefferson of Virginia to undertake the awesome task of writing the first draft of what would later become the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson’s draft was incredibly articulate and powerful. Nonetheless, no first draft is perfect and the text benefited from the input of two other committee members. Both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin offered their input before the work was reported to the whole committee and later passed on to the Congress.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, John Adams, David McCullough describes the editing process:
A number of alterations were made, however, when Jefferson reviewed it with the committee, and several were by Adams. Possibly it was Franklin, or Jefferson himself, who made the small but inspired change in the second paragraph. Where, in the initial draft, certain “truths” were described as “sacred and undeniable”, a simpler stronger “self-evident” was substituted. (As quoted here and here)
Through this process we were given the famous words of the Declaration of Independence, “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.”
It is hard to say whether or not this refinement truly makes a drastic difference, but some prose just has the habit of sticking with people. In fact, these self-evident truths have often come to represent the American dream. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. memorably stated:
I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
A simple Fourth of July resolution
Let’s carefully edit our work. Let’s have others read our writing and get their advice. Sometimes we get so close to our writing that we cannot see the areas that need improvement. I am no stranger to poor writing because I often do not give myself the time that I need to produce something spectacular. Writing and rewriting can be tedious, but we can all do a better job of expressing our thoughts, arguments and ideas. Jefferson’s example shows us that good writing and rewriting can actually change the world. So let’s celebrate this Fourth of July by taking that copy of Strunk and White off of the shelf and blowing the dust off!
We have our own “Committee of Five” right here on campus to help students improve their writing. It is called the Center for Excellence in Writing. While they will not directly edit or proofread, they will “provide direction to help you to develop and improve your writing skills.”
– Kevin Evans
Evans is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations. He studies the presidency and Congress.