Not only students of law and of history, but anyone interested in writing and editing, might derive at least eight valuable lessons—applied even more easily in this digital era—from MIT historian Pauline Maier’s deeply-documented American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997).
● First, keep careful contemporaneous records of drafts and revisions.
At the beginning of the core of her book—its third chapter, “Mr. Jefferson and His Editors”—Maier mentions the fragmentary and conflicting records of the creation of the initial version of the Declaration, by Thomas Jefferson (with limited assistance from fellow attorneys John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, and also from Benjamin Franklin), between June 11 and June 28, 1776.
That committee “left no minutes of its proceedings, and the account of its work written nearest the event, . . . Jefferson’s ‘Notes of Proceedings in the [Second] Continental Congress,’ is succinct to a fault.”
● Second, when possible, produce a first draft quickly. Jefferson, like his colleagues on the committee, had many other Congressional responsibilities; but, according to Adams’s account, completed the draft in only one or two days.
● Third, draw on previous materials, including your own relevant writings.
Jefferson made use of “the draft preamble for the Virginia constitution that he had just finished and which was itself based upon the English Declaration of Rights”; of “a set of draft instructions for Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress” that he had unsuccessfully proposed, on his own initiative, in 1774, and that had subsequently been published by his friends; and of George Mason’s “preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.”
(Maier includes a helpful one-page “Family Tree” of various documents that influenced, or were influenced by, the Declaration.)
● Fourth, especially for those not so extraordinarily well-read as Jefferson, and/or without a literary and historical memory as capacious as his appears to have been, maintain a library (possibly online, or on a hard drive or flash drive) of relevant documents, for ready access.
Jefferson referred in his diary to having, with colleagues in Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1774, “rummaged over” a collection of Puritan-era “revolutionary precedents and forms” in the library of that body’s council chamber, after which they “cooked up a resolution, somewhat modernizing [those] phrases,” in response to the imposition of Parliament’s Boston Port Act. However, Maier indicates that there is no record of Jefferson’s having searched for written sources in Philadelphia in 1776.
● Fifth, consider using a preface, as Jefferson most memorably did, to introduce and set the tone of your document.
Maier discusses how the Declaration announced and justified Independence to the American people, including the soldiers who would be fighting for it, and how Congress deliberately had the document disseminated “not only to the state assemblies, congresses, and conventions that were its immediate constituents and to their Committees of Safety, but to the commanders of the Continental Army, [directing] that it be proclaimed not only in all the states, but at the head of the army.” It was also widely printed in colonial newspapers, and separately circulated in the form of broadsides.
● Sixth, read your writing aloud, even if you don’t anticipate that it will be publicly proclaimed (although Jefferson, for that purpose, marked the Declaration’s text to show where those reading to assemblies should pause. The earliest printed copies of the final document included those marks.).
“Such attention to the cadences of language was natural for Jefferson, a committed violinist fascinated with music. He had also studied classical oratory and rhetorical theory. . . . “
● Seventh, remember that in preparing (at least some) documents, “Less is more.”
Jefferson, in his draft, abbreviated some of Mason’s writings. In turn, the Second Continental Congress, “sitting as the Committee of the Whole, . . . [in] an act of group editing that has to be one of the great marvels of history,” trimmed elements of (particularly the second half of) Jefferson’s work, refining his “overlong attack on the British people to a more lean and constrained statement.”
● Eighth, try not to take revisions of your work, especially as part of a collaborative effort, personally.
In another illustration of the preceding principle, Maier mentions Jefferson’s account of how Franklin “perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations,” and tried to cheer him up.
Franklin told Jefferson a story about a young hatter who, before opening his own store, asked friends for their advice on his proposed sign: “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” accompanied by an image of a hat.
They helpfully eliminated the redundancies one by one, until all that remained was his name, and the picture of the hat.
(A possible ninth lesson: Franklin advised Jefferson that one moral of that story was to resist, “whenever in my power. . . becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.”)
Two days before the Declaration of Independence was formally approved by the delegates—and signed by John Hancock and Charles Thompson (as the President and the Secretary, respectively, of the Second Continental Congress)— Congress voted for independence from England.
One of his biographers reports that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:
“The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
It could well be quibbling to question whether “solemnize” applies to all of the activities in Adams’s last sentence, and to note that Independence Day is celebrated on July 4th, rather than July 2nd.
But reading closely, or even reviewing quickly, the style and the substance of American Scripture’s seven-page, redlined Appendix C—“The Declaration of Independence: The Jefferson Draft with Congress’s Editorial Changes”—might, for many, be both humbling and inspiring.