Excerpt from David McCullough’s John Adams:
[Jefferson] worked rapidly [on writing the Declaration of Independence] and, to judge by surviving drafts, with a sure command of his material. He had none of his books with him, nor needed any, he later claimed. It was not his objective to be original, he would explain, only “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject.”
“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
He borrowed readily from his own previous writing, particularly from a recent draft for a new Virginia constitution, but also from a declaration of rights for Virginia, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on June 12. it had been drawn up by George Mason, who wrote that “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights ï¿½ among which are enjoyment of life and liberty.” And there was a pamphlet written by the Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson, published in Philadelphia in 1774, that declared, “All men are, by nature equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it.”
But then Mason, Wilson, and John Adams, no less than Jefferson, were, as they all appreciated, drawing on long familiarity with the seminal works of the English and Scottish writers John Locke, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Henry St. John Bolinbroke, or such English poets as Defoe (“When kings the sword of justice first lay down,/They are no kings, though they possess the crown. / Titles are shadows, crowns are empty things, / The good of subjects is the end of kings”). Or, for that matter, Cicero (“The people’s good is the highest law.”)
Adams, in his earlier notes for an oration at Braintree, had written, “Nature throws us all into the world equal and alike ï¿½ The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man to endanger public liberty.”ï¿½
What made Jefferson’s work surpassing was the grace and eloquence of expression. Jefferson had done superbly and in minimum time.
“I was delighted with its high tone and flights of oratory with which it abounded [Adams would recall], especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly would never oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted, if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant ï¿½ I thought the expression too passionate; and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.”
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.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equalï¿½
It was to be the eloquent lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration that would stand down the years, affecting the human spirit as neither Jefferson nor anyone could have foreseen. And however much was owed to the writing of others, as Jefferson acknowledged, or to such editorial refinements as those contributed by Franklin or Adams, they were, when all was said and done, his lines. It was Jefferson who had written them for all time:
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.