The tenderest words in American political history were cut from the document they were to have graced.
It was July 1, 2 ,3 and 4, 1776, in the State House in Philadelphia. America was being born. The Continental Congress was reviewing and editing the language of the proposed Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, was suffering the death of a thousand cuts.
The tensions over slavery had been wrenching, terrible, and were resolved by brute calculation: to damn or outlaw it now would break fragile consensus, halt all momentum, and stop the creation of the United States. References to the slave trade were omitted, but the founders were not stupid men, and surely they knew their young nation would have its date with destiny; surely they heard in their silence the guns of Fort Sumter.
Still, in the end, the Congress would not produce only an act of the most enormous human and political significance, the creation of America, it would provide history with one of the few instances in which a work of true literary genius was produced, in essence, by committee. (The writing of the King James Bible is another.)
The beginning of the Declaration had a calm stateliness that signaled, subtly, that something huge is happening:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separate.”
This gave a tone of moral modesty to an act, revolution, that is not a modest one. And it was an interesting modesty, expressing respect for the opinion of the world while assuming the whole world was watching. In time it would be. But that phrase, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” is still a marker, a reminder: We began with respect. America always gets in trouble when we forget that.
The second paragraph will, literally, live forever in the history of man. It still catches the throat:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
What followed was a list of grievances that made the case for separation from the mother country, and this part was fiery. Jefferson was a cold man who wrote with great feeling. He trained his eyes on the depredations of King George III: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns. . . . He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compete the work of death, desolation and tyranny . . .”
Members of the Congress read and reread, and the cutting commenced. Sometimes they cooled Jefferson down. He wrote that the king “suffered the administration of justice totally to cease in some of these states.” They made it simpler: “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice.”
“For Thomas Jefferson it became a painful ordeal, as change after change was called for and approximately a quarter of what he had written was cut entirely.” I quote from the historian David McCullough’s “John Adams,” as I did last year at this time, because everything’s there.
Jefferson looked on in silence. Mr. McCullough notes that there is no record that he uttered a word in protest or in defense of what he’d written. Benjamin Franklin, sitting nearby, comforted him: Edits often reduce things to their essence, don’t fret. It was similar to the wisdom Scott Fitzgerald shared with the promising young novelist Thomas Wolfe 150 years later: Writers bleed over every cut, but at the end they don’t miss what was removed, don’t worry.
“Of more than eighty changes in Jefferson’s draft during the time Congress deliberated, most were minor and served to improve it,” writes Mr. McCullough. But one cut near the end was substantial, and its removal wounded Jefferson, who was right to be wounded, for some of those words should have stayed.
Jefferson had, in his bill of particulars against the king, taken a moment to incriminate the English people themselves—”our British brethren”—for allowing their king and Parliament to send over to America not only “soldiers of our own blood” but “foreign Mercenaries to invade and destroy us.” This, he said, was at the heart of the tragedy of separation. “These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us renounce forever” our old friends and brothers. “We must endeavor to forget our former love for them.”
Well. Talk of love was a little much for the delegates. Love was not on their mind. The entire section was removed.
And so were the words that came next. But they should not have been, for they are the tenderest words.
Poignantly, with a plaintive sound, Jefferson addresses and gives voice to the human pain of parting: “We might have been a free and great people together.”
What loss there is in those words, what humanity, and what realism, too.
“To write is to think, and to write well is to think well,” David McCullough once said in conversation. Jefferson was thinking of the abrupt end of old ties, of self-defining ties, and, I suspect, that the pain of this had to be acknowledged. It is one thing to declare the case for freedom, and to make a fiery denunciation of abusive, autocratic and high-handed governance. But it is another thing, and an equally important one, to acknowledge the human implications of the break. These were our friends, our old relations; we were leaving them, ending the particular facts of our long relationship forever. We would feel it. Seventeen seventy-six was the beginning of a dream. But it was the end of one too. “We might have been a free and great people together.”
It hurt Thomas Jefferson to see these words removed from his great document. And we know something about how he viewed his life, his own essence and meaning, from the words he directed that would, a half-century after 1776, be cut onto his tombstone. The first word after his name is “Author.”
America and Britain did become great and free peoples together, and apart, bound by a special relationship our political leaders don’t often speak of and should never let fade. You can’t have enough old friends. There was the strange war of 1812, declared by America and waged here by England, which reinvaded, and burned our White House and Capitol. That was rude of them. But they got their heads handed to them in New Orleans and left, never to return as an army.
Even 1812 gave us something beautiful and tender. There was a bombardment at Fort McHenry. A young lawyer and writer was watching, Francis Scott Key. He knew his country was imperiled. He watched the long night in hopes the fort had not fallen. And he saw it—the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
And so to all writers (would-be, occasional and professional) and all editors too, down through our history: Happy 234th Independence Day. And to our British cousins: Nice growing old with you.