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Revising Our Freedom

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he explains how digital archaeology has revealed Thomas Jefferson’s revisions of the Declaration of Independence. Read his previous posts here.

Jefferson on the two-dollar bill

On the last page of the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote “fellow-subjects,” then thought better of a phrase that evoked the very monarch he was challenging, and changed the words to “fellow-citizens.” It’s no surprise that Jefferson was a writer who revised: every writer tweaks and fiddles, and a declaration of independence should be worded just right. What’s interesting about this particular edit is what Jefferson changed, how he changed it, and how that change came to light.

In a list of the colonies’ grievances against King George III Jefferson wrote, “he has incited treasonable insurrections of our fellow-subjects, with the allurements of forfeiture and confiscation of our property.” But the future president, whose image now graces the two-dollar bill, must have realized right away that “fellow-subjects” was the language of monarchy, not democracy, because “while the ink was still wet” Jefferson took out “subjects” and put in “citizens.”

In a eureka moment, a document expert at the Library of Congress examining the rough draft late at night suddenly noticed that there seemed to be something written under the word citizens. It was no Da Vinci code or treasure map, but Jefferson’s original wording, soon uncovered using a technique called “hyperspectral imaging,” a kind of digital archeology that lets us view the different layers of a text. The rough draft of the Declaration was digitally photographed using different wavelengths of the visible and invisible spectrum. Comparing and blending the different images revealed the word that Jefferson wrote, then rubbed out and wrote over.

Excerpt from rough draft of Declaration showing the sentence that Jefferson edited

detail from the above, showing

Above: Jefferson’s rough draft reads, “he has incited treasonable insurrections of our fellow-citizens”; followed by a detail of “fellow-citizens” with underwriting visible in ordinary light. Below: a series of hyperspectral images made by the Library of Congress showing that Jefferson’s initial impulse was to write “fellow-subjects.” [Hi-res images of the rough draft are available at the Library of Congress website.] Elsewhere in the draft Jefferson doesn’t hesitate to cross out and squeeze words and even whole lines in as necessary, but in this case he manages to fit his emendation neatly into the same space as the word it replaces.

hyperspectral image

According to Julian P. Boyd, editor of Jefferson’s papers, Jefferson’s initial phrasing was influenced by the use of fellow-subjects in George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Constitution, adopted on June 29, 1776: “By inciting insurrections of our fellow subjects, with the allurements of forfeiture and confiscation” (emphasis added). The Oxford English Dictionary dates fellow-subjects, which always appears in reference to a monarchy, from the early seventeenth century (fellow, s.v.). The phrase fellow citizens goes back to sixteenth-century English religious writing (the first cite in the OED is from 1578 [fellow-citizen, s.v.), though it begins to appear in political contexts in the eighteenth century. With the Declaration, fellow citizens finds new life in the context of American independence, and its contemporary incarnation, “fellow Americans,” has become a staple of American political speechifying.

It’s interesting as well that Jefferson’s alteration of subjects to citizens never made it to the final version of the Declaration. Somewhere between the rough draft and the finished text, Jefferson tightened his phrasing of the insurrection charge against King George so that the final text reads, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” Even so, the replacement in the rough draft of fellow-subjects with fellow-citizens shows Jefferson shunning the language of dependence in favor of something more in line with Enlightenment politics. And it also shows him covering his tracks. Elsewhere in the draft of the Declaration, Jefferson freely crosses out large sections of text, and he squeezes words and whole sentences between the lines, bracketing other words and making marginal notations. But in this one case Jefferson fits the replacement neatly over the original, erasing any trace of royalism from the text.

Text of rough draft, showing cross-outs and editing between the lines

Where independence is concerned, neatness doesn’t count: Jefferson didn’t hesitate to cross out or write between the lines as he edited the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence (according to Boyd, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin also made some of the edits in this copy of the rough draft, but he is sure it was Jefferson who added fellow-citizens because that edit was done while the ink was still wet).

Jefferson may have dropped his reference to the colonists as subjects, but he did find another place for fellow-citizens in the final version of the Declaration’s litany of complaints against the king: “He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands” (emphasis added; this particular charge against King George does not appear in the rough draft).

Today’s digital revolution is enabling researchers to recover the archeology of Jefferson’s much-worked-over draft of the Declaration of Independence. Applying new imaging techniques to old books and manuscripts allows us to sift through their strata for the shards of discarded words and phrases. But the digital computer has also brought changes to how writers work today that destroy the archeology of most of what we write on-screen.

Image of quill, inkwell, and scroll

Were Jefferson drafting a twenty-first century Declaration of Independence, he’d use a laptop, not a quill and inkwell. And the inveterate reviser would find that both composing and revising on a laptop is nothing short of addictive: cut and paste, insert and delete work seamlessly, and the screen always shows the writer a professional-looking, camera-ready text with no messy cross-outs or writing in the margins or between the lines. But unless Jefferson remembered to click “track changes” on his word processor or saved each revision as a separate file, he’d find that the layers of his drafts automatically collapsed into one each time he closed the document. That means that researchers centuries from now, or even minutes from now, would have no way of knowing that Jefferson wrote comrades in the first draft, but fearing how that would play in the red states, changed it to fellow Americans in the final draft. And considering the pains with which Jefferson covered up his potentially embarrassing use of our fellow-subjects, that might suit the third president of the United States just fine.

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