The Editing of the Declaration of Independence


Perfect for perfectionists - take a look at Jefferson's rough draft, with many crossouts and changes. Kids may also be interested to learn that Thomas Jefferson was pretty upset about how the Continental Congress further edited his original document.

Here's a few possible assignments that can get kids thinking more deeply about Independence Day:

1) Read the final Declaration together, answering questions, and then ask the student to write it in their own words, as if they were telling a friend what the Declaration is about.

2) What was Jefferson thinking as he wrote the first draft? Does anything strike you about his edits? What was he trying to achieve? (Some of the edits were likely made directly by Benjamin Franklin and possibly John Adams.)

3) Why did the Continental Congress edit in the way that it did? Why was Jefferson upset about it? (Many minor edits may have simply weakened the prose by adding caveats, but note that the whole paragraph condemning the slave trade was removed.)

4) Where did the ideas in the Declaration come from? This one requires the most research, and it depends how far back you would like to go - but the evolution of ideas can be a fascinating study!

5) Here's a smaller bite: according to Walter Isaacson in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Franklin crossed out the word 'sacred' and changed it to 'self-evident' as in 'We hold these truths to be self-evident'. Why might he have done that?
(You can tell Franklin's edits, according to Isaacson, because he crossed things out with thick backslashes, different than Jefferson's editing style.)

For more reading:

Declaration of Independence with the Contintental Congress' edits shown in brackets
Library of Congress exhibits on the Declaration of Independence
Library of Congress timeline and links
Discussion of how the Declaration was drafted and the other documents it drew upon
Wikipedia article discussing 'happiness' vs 'property'

The images below are in the public domain, so feel free to reproduce them. The upper image is the 'polished' rough draft that Jefferson shared with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and most likely includes some of their edits as well. The lower image is a fragment of one of Jefferson's original or very early drafts - and is even messier. The 'polished' rough draft would make a great poster!

(The Bridgeman Art Library, Ltd. v. Corel Corporation, 97 Civ. 6232 (LAK) — Ruling that photographic or digital images of public domain art works are not copyrightable)

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