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Why Thomas Jefferson Was Wrong Essay

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Updated: Nov 7th, 2021

It is hard to imagine the pressure Congress worked under during the summer of 1776. The fact that the signers of the Declaration of Independence speculated among themselves that they might soon be “exalted on a high gallows” (Munves 1) was one indication, More seriously, as many as one hundred and thirty British ships had gathered in New York harbor, a city in which James Munves says gun powder was scarce. Most of the urgency that marked those days in July was caused by the need to get the Declaration out to all thirteen states so that the news would spread and rally everyone to the cause.

To this end, the draft of the Declaration accepted by Congress was printed up and sent out by couriers. Despite the pressure of time, the draft written by Thomas Jefferson, future president of the United States of America, was carefully revised before being printed, a fact that irritated Jefferson to the point where he made copies of his version to send to most of his friends as if trying to unite them behind a new Declaration. However, as I will show, although Jefferson might have been right in principle and the long run, he was wrong to think that his manuscript was the right one for that particular moment in history.

There were eighty-six changes in all, made by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and other members of the committee. Many were changes in capitalization, punctuation, and paragraphing but others altered the substance of Jefferson’s draft. Whereas Jefferson’s use of capital letters in the Declaration had been similar to modern practice, meaning that he capitalized only names and, according to Munves, in one case failed to capitalize “god,” the copy that emerged from John Dunlap’s printing press adhered to eighteenth-century practice in which “nouns were capitalized haphazardly for emphasis” (Munves 1).

Dunlap replaced ampersands with “and,” to which Jefferson probably had no objection. As a result, the printed copy has a haphazard look about it when compared to the coolly professional look and style of Jefferson’s, and a modern reader looks antiquated.

However, the members of the Congress had made substantive changes as well which, as most students of civics know, centered on the Declarations statements on relations with Great Britain and on the issue of slavery. To Jefferson, these changes were hard to forgive, and even though he signed the engrossed copy – in which these parts had been omitted — on the 2nd of August, 1776, he remained convinced that his version was superior to the official one.

Jefferson was wrong. The Congress was under pressure not just from the British who were preparing to crush their revolution, but also from its constituents, not all of whom were convinced independence was the best step to take. New York, for example, had not committed itself to independence and did not do so until sometime after the Declaration’s 4th of July issuance.

The initial reading of the Declaration in Philadelphia only attracted a small crowd of unemployed sailors and idlers who gathered around the rickety steeple which barely supported Philadelphia’s cracked bell, according to Munves, a reminder that the land had only recently been settled and was far from being able to match the British Empire’s power. The first printed copy of the Declaration galvanized the population, leading New York to exuberant celebrations and the tearing down of all signs of British dominance, proof of its effectiveness.

The printed copy of the Declaration was in the form of a broadside, one with which the public was familiar. Munves explains that the Declaration, at this stage, was propaganda for the cause of independence, and was meant to be read by and to soldiers, sailors, and the general public to unite them in a common cause. While Jefferson’s version would appeal to educated people, the kind of readers who do not need excessive capitalization to catch the full meaning of the text, most of the people to whom the first copy of the Declaration was addressed were far from well-educated and therefore needed all the guidance that could be provided.

The Declaration would mostly be read out to the public, making it necessary to indicate to the reader which words had to be emphasized. Additionally, where educated readers are used to texts employing long paragraphs, here it might discourage readers. That is why Dunlap capitalized the first full word of each paragraph. The engrossed copy could dispense with paragraphs altogether and be written by hand by calligrapher Timothy Matlack because its purpose was ceremonial. Matlack’s transcription errors and his erratic capitalization likewise did not make this version less effective. Only that first printed copy had to be appeal to the new republic’s citizens

Jefferson’s indignation at having his draft corrected was shared by a number of his friends, who agreed with him that “the Critics” had produced a version inferior to his. Richard Henry Lee, a representative of the Virginia convention, told Jefferson that the manuscripts had been “mangled,” and suggested that “this rage of change” was responsible for it, the same rage presumably that was behind the American Revolution. After that, Jefferson’s version ceased to be of interest.

As I have shown, Jefferson was wrong to write his Declaration for an educated public and to be read closely. He was right in principle to protest against Great Britain’s policy on slavery but wrong politically. Even his capitalization and punctuation showed that he had misjudged his public. Most of all, Jefferson was wrong to circulate his draft because in a small way he was undermining the authority of the Declaration which, by that time, had been engrossed and made into the law of the new republic.

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