Thoughts about the writing of our Declaration of Independence.
He wrote it in 17 days. No electricity, no internet for research, no software, no cut, copy or paste. Only pen and ink, and candlelight to write at night. He was only 33 years old. And he did it alone, in two rented rooms of an otherwise occupied house... in the unairconditioned weather of mid summertime. And yes, it was on a deadline. There was a sense of urgency at that time.
How does one prepare to write The Declaration of Independence? I’ve often thought about what it must have been like for Thomas Jefferson to do that. What pressure did he feel? What was his writing plan? There must have been an outline. What books and research documents, if any, were in that room with him? Did he have a copy of The Virginia Bill of Rights to review? Was Henry Lee’s resolution written before him? Were any of John Locke’s writings there? Was “Common Sense” on the bedside table?
Like most writers, did he think about his voice? Did he wait in ponder for days for his muse to come? How long did it take to get the opening sentence? Did he pace as he thought about it and worked out the document in his mind? Did he awake from deep sleep, startled in the middle of the night by a thought that he hurriedly scrambled to put on paper before he might forget? Was Franklin and Adams in his thoughts as he wrote? Did he know, as an extraordinarily young man for such a task, that in this room, at this desk, at this time, through his mind and by his hand that he was going to change the world?
It’s been said that our Declaration of Independence came from an open channel between Jefferson and the divine. Maybe so. The idea of the ideal of individual liberty was certainly not new. But what really went on in that room in Jefferson’s innermost thoughts, and those of his maker, we will never know. Our freedom paper emerged out of it, a perfect synthesis of political philosophy and the evolution of human rights at that time. There was magic in the air.
It was in it’s way a selling document. A really profound one. It sold us as an independent nation, justified it persuasively, got bought by the Continental Congress with little amendment, and was distributed first here in America and then throughout the civilized world. The separation deed was done. It was bought and paid for dearly. There was no turning back now.
Jefferson and our founding fathers certainly did long lasting, important and blessed things that had never been done before. They thought new thoughts, they tread new ground. There has never been such an array of extraordinary men of such extraordinary talent that came together at the same time in our country before, though those that lead us through World War II might have come close. On this 4th of July day, 2007, I’m thinking about all of them, and thinking about them well.
A few things about the writing of the document:
It was written between June 11 and June 28, 1776.
Jefferson was one of a committee of five (Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston) that was asked to write the declaration. It was understood that it needed to list the causes for severance. An author at heart, Jefferson was the logical choice to write it.
Jefferson chose to be away from the distractions of the city to write the declaration.
He rented two furnished rooms on the second floor in the home of Jacob Graff on the outskirts of Philadelphia, one was a sitting room, the other a bedchamber, with a bed shorter than Jefferson was tall.
The Graff house was surrounded by farm fields. There was a stable across the street. Horseflies from the stable pestered Jefferson constantly while writing it.
Jefferson had an account at the City Tavern while writing the Declaration. That obviously didn’t distract him.
The original Graff house was torn down in 1883. It has since been recreated and is an exhibit.
The Weather on July 4, 1776:
The weather the day that our Declaration of Independence was ratified was not has hot as one might think. Jefferson was a meticulous keeper of a weather journal. He had a thermometer with him. The temperature that day was 68oF at 6 a.m., 72oF at 9 a.m., and 76oF at 1 p.m. It was 11 o below normal. Winds that day shifting from the north to the southwest, with decreasing air pressure. The sky become overcast and cloudy by late afternoon.