The Declaration - Congress's finest hour
JOHN ADAMS, who played a critical role in the coming of the American Revolution, said that ``human nature cannot bear prosperity. It invariably intoxicates individuals and nations. Adversity is the great reformer. Affliction is the purifying furnace.'' America knew adversity and affliction in the early summer of 1776 as the Continental Congress debated independence.
Even the history of the Declaration was mired in gloom and serious problems, although few Americans today recognize the severity of the situation as it existed in late June and early July of the critical year of the war with Britain.
To be sure, events started out on a rosy side. Without much fanfare a committee of Congress was appointed to draft the document. Consisting of Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, the committee unanimously requested Jefferson to undertake the writing. And when the first draft was submitted to Adams and Franklin, only a few minor changes were suggested.
Jefferson on his own initiative then made nearly a score more revisions in the language, including three new paragraphs, which may have been suggested by Adams. Rather routinely the corrected draft became the report of the committee of five, which was then presented to Congress on June 28. When the Congress actually adopted on July 2 a resolution to declare independence, it turned next to the Declaration. So far so good.
Congress, however, did not like the draft. The ideas embodied in the draft were not new, some argued. Still others were uncomfortable with certain stylistic aspects.
What is important is that Congress rose to the occasion and made numerous changes that would ultimately give the document its impressive literary and substantive effects.
``Inherent and inalienable rights'' became ``certain unalienable rights.'' In the same opening paragraphs, 34 words were stricken, mostly those charged with excessive emotion or claims: ``unremitting injuries'' was softened to ``repeated'' ones, and the final line (``to prove this let the facts be submitted to a candid world'') would be unadorned by the claim, ``for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.''
Congress tightened up the charges against George III. And two charges, one related to slavery, the other to confiscation of property, were eliminated, presumably on the grounds that the latter had not occurred and the former could scarcely be blamed on the king.
Without doubt, Congress's finest hour came with the document's closing paragraphs, which were burdened by verbose language.
The Declaration would have lost much of its appeal had the following draft language remained unedited:
``Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend a jurisdiction over these states. ... They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity; and when occasions have been given them, by the regular course of their laws, of removing from their councils the disturbers of our harmony, they have by their free election reestablished them in power. At this very time, too, they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy us. These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection; and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and to hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have been a free & great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom, it seems, is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it. The road to happiness and to glory is open to us too; we will climb it apart from them, and acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our eternal separation!''
Even the final, moving paragraph ending with the words ``our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor'' was significantly rewritten by Congress. Of course, Jefferson deserves the major credit for authorship of the Declaration, but it seems quite appropriate on Independence Day, 1987, to recognize that democratic deliberation worked to eliminate its flaws, strengthen its message to the nation and world, and, most of all, to convey a well-founded and ample patriotic fervor that would sustain future generations of Americans.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.