The most famous passage in the Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4 but signed this week (Aug. 2) in 1776, talks of “self evident” truths regarding “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet the bulk of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration is a litany of complaints about the misbehavior of King George III. America needed to justify its decision to break with Britain, and that meant pointing out the reasons that break was necessary.

Still, when Congress debated Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, many of Jefferson’s complaints were deleted, and rightly so. Occasionally, Tom went too far.

For example, he claimed that the colonists had migrated to America “at the expense of our own blood and treasure; unassisted by the strength of Great Britain …” and, therefore, “submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution.” Jefferson was claiming that no branch of the British government had any authority over America, which Congress knew was not true. Indeed, right up to the American Revolution most colonists were willing to cede to British control over external issues, such as regulating trade, if they were allowed to handle internal issues, such as taxation. So that complaint was deleted.

Jefferson also claimed that King George was responsible for promulgating America’s slave trade, and, by extension, was responsible for slavery itself. Justifiably, Congress deleted that passage, not only because King George had ascended the British throne 140 years after slavery came to America, but also because there had been few if any efforts to end slavery in 1776. That was certainly true in the slave-holding South, but even in the North, especially seafaring New England, the slave trade was extremely lucrative.

Congress also deleted Jefferson’s accusation that the British people were complicit in the government’s violation of colonial rights. Jefferson wrote that Americans must break all bonds of affection with their “unfeeling [British] brethren,” which many in Congress thought rather shortsighted. So out it went.

That said, Congress made one addition they thought worthy. Jefferson’s conclusion read, “And for the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Congress changed that to, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” “With God on our side,” Congress must have thought, “how can we go wrong?”

Oh, and Congress did keep one of Jefferson’s most prescient complaints — that King George had “erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” What Jefferson was describing there are meddlesome government bureaucrats.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net @BruceKauffmann.

Recommended for you