June 27, 2011

July 4, 1776: Thomas Jefferson's Editing Ordeal (Create a Word Search Puzzle)

By Brandon Marie Miller

I’ve just finished going through editorial revisions on my new biography of Thomas Jefferson. Over the years, I’ve certainly had my work improved by my editors and learned much during the editorial process. It is a wonderful collaborative effort! So I found Jefferson’s reaction to the “editing” process of his draft for the Declaration of Independence an interesting piece of the Jefferson puzzle.
Jefferson spent most of the debate over the document slumped in his chair next to Benjamin Franklin, fuming in silence. Out of the five-man committee chosen to draft the document, thirty-three-year-old Jefferson, known for the eloquence of his pen, had taken on the job. Over several weeks he’d composed, revised and refined; a lawyer preparing an important case as he laid out nearly thirty charges against King George III. He distilled years of study and thinking into his carefully chosen words. Now those words were being picked apart. The days of tense debate, by anxious men facing a dangerous decision, took its toll on Jefferson, who typically avoided confrontation.
Congress worked line by line through his draft. Quill pens marked out sentences, changed and added words, and deleted entire sections of Jefferson’s work, including a passage he wrote condemning slavery as “a cruel war against human nature itself.” Much of the editing actually sharpened Jefferson’s points. But he hated having his words watered down based on the misguided notion “that we had friends in England worth keeping….”

Congress formally approved the final version of the document on July 4, 1776. A few days later Philadelphians gathered to hear Jefferson’s words read aloud. On July 9, in New York, General George Washington had the Declaration of Independence read to his soldiers. The birth of a new nation now lay at stake.
Time did not erase the humiliation Jefferson felt during the debate.  He objected to many of the changes Congress made. Later that summer he copied out his original work, putting back edited sections and banishing Congress’s 86 changes to the margins. He sent this version to friends instead of the “mangled” version printed in Philadelphia. Even decades later, as an old man penning his autobiography, Jefferson included the entire “form of the Declaration as originally reported” with “the parts struck out by Congress” underlined in black. The old wounds from 1776 still hurt!
Today, Jefferson’s words live on. In a few sentences written that summer of 1776, he summed up the ideals of America and created the lasting legacy of the American Revolution, a legacy that still matters today all over the world.
            “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—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government become destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
Thomas Jefferson died, in the most fitting of ends, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of his Declaration of Independence.
Now-- create a word search game using the Declaration of Independence. Have fun!


  1. Thanks, Kerrie, for posting a link to your new blog on NFforKIds, and to all of you for the ideas. I've been thinking of a couple of book ideas for Chicago Review Press, but the thought of coming up with so many activities is daunting! Interesting post about Jefferson and editing.

  2. Very interesting, Brandon! I just watched the musical 1776 which really brought the critique/rewrite to life.

  3. I found your blog on NOSCBWI's message board. Your books look wonderful. I love that they include activities.

    This post about Thomas Jefferson is very interesting. Thank you for sharing. Good Luck!