10 July 1998
Some reflections, in the form of a history lesson, regarding the the proposal for an "editorial board" for CFEPE ...
If it is intended as some sort of oversight group to edit things that others write for publication in any sort of open forum, I oppose the idea. Here's why:
In the Spring and Summer of the year 1776, representatives of Britain's North American colonies met in Philadelphia for what some might call a second series of "brainstorming" sessions about their future relationship, if any, with the mother country. It came to be known as the Second Continental Congress. From New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south, the colonists had one thing in common -- they were unhappy with their government, i.e., the one in Great Britain.
The reasons for this unhappiness varied from colony to colony, of course, and so did the solutions suggested to remedy them. In fact, by May of 1776, these representatives had been debating for a year what to do about their grievances. Some said that enough was enough, and that the thirteen separate colonies should break the ties with Britain completely and then, if necessary, form a confederation of thirteen independent entities to act collectively in dealing with whatever response the British might have. The more radical representatives, notably those from Virginia and Massachusetts, were already on record as stating repeatedly that the break with England was irreparable, and that the time for a declaration of independence was at hand. Sentiment for independence ran high in other areas too, but by no means everywhere. The greatest reluctance lay in the middle colonies, particularly in Pennsylvania. Many of the Pennsylvania delegation, including the distinguished John Dickinson, still hoped to patch up the quarrel with England.
Such cautious sentiments infuriated the more radical members of Congress, especially John and Samuel Adams from Massachusetts, who had worked for independence from the opening days of the First Continental Conress -- but they found the going very slow indeed.
America, John complained, was " ... a great unwieldy body. It is like a large fleet sailing under convoy. The fleetest sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest." Outspoken views like that understandably brought criticism from those he had called "the dullest and slowest." Writing to his wife Abigail, John Adams had to admit that "We have been obliged to keep ourselves out of sight, and to feel pulses, and to sound the depths; to insinuate our sentiments, designs and desires, by means of other persons."
Thomas Jefferson of Virginia also favored independence, but he lacked the Adamses' taste for political infighting. So while the men from Massachusetts pulled their strings in Congress, Jefferson only listened attentively and took notes. Thirty-three years old, he was the youngest delegate to the Congress, and perhaps this contributed to his attitude. He got along with the other delegates well, however, and performed his committee assignments dutifully. Nevertheless, he hoped only to leave Philadelphia as soon as possible to return to his own "country" of Virginia where (in his view) the real action would be played out. While Congress puttered endlessly over the question of independence, Virginia took the bold step of drawing up a new frame of government. Jefferson had definite ideas about what ought to be incorporated in any Virginia constitution, and he wanted to be on hand when it was drafted.
But it was last minute news from Virginia that brought matters to a head in Philadelphia. In late May, 1776, Richard Henry Lee arrived from Williamsburg under instructions to force Congress to act. On Friday, June 7, Lee rose in Congress and offered the following three resolutions:
Over the next few weeks, the propositions were debated. But we don't know much of the debates because The Secretary of the Congress, Charles Townsend, cautiously recorded in the minutes only that "certain resolutions" were "moved and discussed" -- the certain resolutions, of course, treasonous in the extreme.
Even without knowing the outcome of the Virginia resolutions, the radicals of the Congress set the wheels for independence in motion by having appointed, on June 11, a five member committee "to prepare a Declaration to the effect of the first said resolution." The "Committee of Five" was made up of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. There are few formal notes about how they proceeded until 28 June, when the minutes of the Congress show that the committee "brought in a draught" of an independence declaration.
Although there are no minutes for the Committee of Five, from other documents it's possible to piece together how it worked. Forty years after 1776, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams tried to set down the sequence of events. Adams recalled the affable and diplomatic Jefferson suggesting that Adams write the first draft.
"I will not," replied Adams.
"You shall do it," persisted Jefferson.
"Why will you not do it? You ought to do it."
"I will not. I have reasons enough."
"What can be your reasons?"
Adams ticked them off. "Reason 1st. You are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to be at the head of this business. Reason 2nd. I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular; you are very much otherwise. Reason 3rd. You can write ten times better than I can."
"Well," said Jefferson, "if you are decided I will do as well as I can."
Over the next two weeks, the Committee of Five met just a few times. The purpose of these meetings was to provide the members besides Jefferson an opportunity to comment on the progress of the document he authored. Jefferson recalled years later, that there were very few corrections, deletions, or additions to his draught: " ... the corrections of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams interlined in their own handwriting. Their alterations were two or three only, and merely verbal [that is, changes of phrasing, not substance]. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress."
Jefferson's "fair copy" was the document that reached the Congress on June 28, 1776.
Congress promptly resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole, " ... to take into consideration the resolution respecting independancy." Since the official minutes do not record the activities of committees, Congress could freely debate the sensitive issue of independence as a "Committee of the Whole" without leaving any record of debate or disagreement in the official minutes. Then, on July 2nd, the Committee of the Whole went through the motions of "reporting back" to Congress (that is, to itself). The minutes note only that Richard Henry Lee's resolution , then "being read" in formal session, "was agreed to as follows" -- printing the original resolves of June 7. Thus the minutes make clear that the colonists declared their independence from Britain on July 2nd, not the 4th, and that the adopted resolution was not the five-member committee's resolution, but Richard Henry Lee's original proposal of June 7th.
Hence though Congress had officially broken ties with England, the declaration explaining the action to the rest of the world had not yet been approved. On July 3rd and July 4th, Congress again met as a Committee of the Whole, and only after that was the formal declaration reported back, and sent to the printer, the document familiar to everyone, the one beginning with its bold large letters "IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776," and concluding with the Continental Congress's signatures. By comparing the printed document with the "fair copy" submitted by Jefferson on behalf of the Committee of Five, we can see that at the beginning of July, 1776 Congress removed about 25% of Jefferson's original language, and that no fewer than eighty-six alterations were made by one person or another, including Jefferson.
To these alterations the original author behaved as might be expected of any creator proud of his work: he squirmed. As Congress debated the document, Jefferson followed his usual custom and remained silent, but the pain must have been evident on his face. Benjamin Franklin noticed, and leaned over with a few consoling words. "I have made it a rule," he said,
whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice Hatter, having served out his time, was about to open a shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words: 'John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,' with the figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he shewed it to thought the word 'hatter' tautologous, because followed by the words 'makes hats' which shew he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word 'makes' might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. A third said he thought the words 'for ready money' were useless as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased was expected to pay. They too were parted with, and the inscription now stood 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats' says his next friend? Why nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and 'hats' followed it, the rather, as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to 'John Thompson' with the figure of a hat subjoined.
Most American historians agree that the majority of the changes made by Congress weakened the Declaration rather than hindered it. Too, they are grateful that Jefferson retained enough pride in his creation to preserve the original drafts that now make it possible to trace out the course of events, agreements, and disagreements, in those fateful weeks between June 7 and July 4, 1776 -- even though there are no formal minutes of the proceedings.
The same events also leave most historians at best dubious about "editorial boards."
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