In the Room Where It Happened

As an editor I have a soft spot in my heart every Independence Day for one Thomas Jefferson.  The 33-year old delegate from Virginia was asked in the summer of 1776, to bang out a quick paper on, oh, Everything America Stands For based on pure conjecture.  “And, yo, Tommy, we need it by Friday,” was likely the sum total of his instructions. So Jefferson secludes himself in the second-floor room of the two-room apartment pictured above (a ‘must see’ if you come for a visit) located in a building on the southwest corner of 7th and Market Streets in Philadelphia.  He rolls up his sleeves…it was hot…fills up his inkwell, sends his manservant Bob (true!) down to the corner for a couple of cheesesteak hoagies with fried onions and goes to work. (That last part is still undocumented historically speaking, but his rough draft does show some unexplained grease stains.)

A copy of that rough draft shows how he agonized over every word making it not just a legally viable document but one of the great works of prose in the english language.

He had a couple of very sympathetic and light-handed editors looking over that first draft, two guys named Franklin and Adams who knew The Kid had writing chops but the Continental Congress would likely tear it to pieces. Franklin, 70 at the time, knew what his young friend was up against, saying,  “I have made it a rule whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draftsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.” Old Ben sat next to young Tom while the Congress began taking its swings at the document on July 1, wisely cautioning him to let the process play itself out. Jefferson heeded the old man’s advice saying,  “As to myself, I thought it a duty to be, on that occasion, a passive auditor of the opinions of others, more impartial judges than I could be, of its merits or demerits.” But he suffered in his silence while seeing his text, in his own words, “mangled.” 

Adams, known for his bluntness among his colleagues, called the debate “an idle Mispence of Time.” Five decades later, Jefferson would give Adams credit for his leadership saying, “he supported the Declaration with zeal and ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it.”

The most noted line that was left “on the cutting room floor” concerned slavery.  “The  CHRISTIAN (his emphasis) king of Great Britain, Jefferson wrote, was determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

As Franklin and Adams no doubt anticipated, yet left in with hopes… no one would notice? … the southern states would have an objection or two to the clause.  Jefferson ‘read the room’ and stayed silent while it was stricken from the document. He later said:

“The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.

One can only wonder what the course of this nation would have been if the non-southern delegates, emboldened by a Virginian, no less, had followed their principles and kept that clause intact.

The debate may have raged on for another week or two had it not been so hot in Philly that summer of ‘76.  But to cool things off, the windows were opened and the delegates were promptly attacked by horseflies from a nearby stable. Congress quickly decided to vote, adjourn, and retreat to local taverns….otherwise we’d be wishing each other a happy July 8th or 13th.

So, in the end, Jefferson had Franklin, Adams and horseflies to thank for preserving much of his efforts.  And we thank him too.

Happy 4th!

By Jim Fryer, Managing Editor, Inside Towers

July 3, 2018

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