5 Edits Made to the Declaration of Independence

On July 4th, 1776, one of the world's most famous documents debuted. Learn of Thomas Jefferson's draft to its final form, revealing edits and historical insights.
On July 4th, 1776, one of the world’s most famous documents debuted. It was the Declaration of Independence, America’s lofty, lyrical treatise on why thirteen colonies subject to British rule would henceforth consider themselves a separate and sovereign nation, one for which its patriots were willing to spill not only ink, but also blood. America’s Declaration of Independence is written in steady, flowing prose, and its language has become so much a part of the national story that we almost forget it was indeed written by real people as complex and fallible as any among us. While the Declaration we know and revere may seem handed down from on high, it was in fact written, edited and re-written by a small group of highly opinionated, occasionally divisive men who largely coopted the work of other writers and bent it to fit their own designs.

25% of Original Draft Removed

By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, it had been made a full one-fourth shorter than the original draft written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, while a fine writer, had only about two weeks to draft the document, and was kept busy with his duties as a delegate to the Constitutional Congress during most of the hours of the day. His writing needed extensive editing and polishing before it was found suitable to a majority of delegates.

The Myth of the July 4th Signing

It is likely that on the Fourth of July, 1776, only one man signed the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, who was the president of the Congress at the time. Most of the 56 signatures on the original copies of the document were likely inscribed on August 2nd, nearly a month after the accepted date of the Declaration’s signing.

No Mention of Slavery

Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence included language asserting that the slave system in America had been forced upon the colonies by Britain. This language was removed by other members of the Continental Congress who felt it might insult and estrange colonial sympathizers back across the ocean in England.

From Subjects to Citizens

Thomas Jefferson wrote the lion’s share of the Declaration of Independence, and while he did so with much input from others, it is to him that much of the credit for its final language goes. His typical attention to detail and grasp of a word’s true meaning and power were on full display when Jefferson soundly expunged the word “subjects” from one of the Declaration’s clauses, replacing it with the phrase “our fellow citizens” instead. With that edit, the colonists went from rebellious subjects of King George III to proud patriots standing up for their own rights.

Life, Liberty and… Not Property

The Declaration’s statement that humans are innately entitled to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is directly lifted from the writings of John Locke, the British philosopher. In his work Two Treatises of Government, Locke wrote that humans are entitled to life, liberty and property. The omission of this last word is of critical note: the Framers made the switch to avoid putting themselves in a position of de facto assuring all who sided with the patriot cause the potential to own property, a promise they could not necessarily keep.