[This Commentary originally appeared in the August 2, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams bickered constantly during their lives. I don’t know too much about what they argued about. From the little reading I’ve done on the matter, though, it seems they agreed to disagree on just about everything.
We do know they agreed on at least three important things. First, they agreed the American colonies should be free from the reign of King George of Britain. This led to perhaps their best known collaborative work, The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. Today, we refer to this work as “The Declaration of Independence.”
Both Jefferson and Adams served on a five man committee with Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. The Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, appointed this committee on June 11. John Adams claimed Thomas Jefferson asked him to write the declaration, but declined, saying the 33 year-old Jefferson was a much better writer. Jefferson later countered he never asked Adams to write what has become perhaps the most famous document in American literature.
Adams added further, in complimenting Jefferson’s authorship, that the Declaration of Independence represented, in summary, the thoughts and feelings debated within the Continental Congress the two previous years. Adams also said Jefferson faithfully captured the philosophies of the great many pro-independence pamphlets then circulating in colonial America.
Jefferson, perhaps sensing an accusation of plagiarism, denied Adams’ comments, saying “neither book nor pamphlet” had aided him in his writing. In all fairness, though, portions of the Declaration of Independence seemed to be lifted nearly word for word from John Locke’s Treatises on Government. Luckily for Jefferson, copyright laws had not been established at that time. Of course, the country had yet to be established, too.
We might also note Jefferson did not appreciate some of the editing of his work as performed by the congressional delegates. Yet, Jefferson knew enough to get Adams’ and Franklin’s changes prior to submitting his final draft. Ironically, the biggest change made by the Congress dealt with the elimination of Jefferson’s statements on the illegality of slavery.
Jefferson, who owned more than a hundred slaves, could not write in the name of freedom when that freedom did not apply to all oppressed peoples. Some of his contemporaries, including Adams, questioned the apparent hypocrisy of his actions. (Though Jefferson advocated the abolition of slavery, he quickly offered rewards for the capture and return of any slaves who escaped from his plantation.)
The issue of slavery surfaced not only during the discussion of the Declaration of Independence, but also when the Congress created the Constitution. Historians often wonder how differently our country might have evolved had the abolitionists been more successful in the 1700s.
Second, both Adams and Jefferson agree that the Declaration of Independence was both adopted and signed on July 4, 1776. We do know the Congress approved the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on what we now celebrate as Independence Day. We doubt, however, the delegates signed any document on that date.
While the final version of the Declaration of Independence found itself on a printed document on July Fourth, Congress passed a resolution on July 19 ordering it printed on parchment. The printer made several copies, but lost the original. On August 2, 1776, 53 of the 56 signers put their “John Hancock” to the parchment. (Now you know the why behind the title of this Commentary.) It is this signed document which is displayed at the National Archives in Washington DC.
Before we leave the Declaration of Independence, let’s look at one final bit of trivia. We all know the declaration mentions something about being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” (my italics). People often wonder if unalienable is an archaic form of inalienable. In fact, Jefferson did write inalienable. The final draft contains a typographical error, now etched forever in the history of mankind.
Oh yes, the third matter Thomas Jefferson and John Adams came to agreement on? On July 4, 1826, both of these icons of the American Revolution passed away.
Next Week #70: The Great Tax Battle of 1990 – Winner #2: Democrats (originally published on July 26, 1990)
Next Week #72: EDITORIAL (originally published on August 9, 1990)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]