CASE II: Drafting the Declaration of Independence
Some of the most dramatic scenes of the movement for American independence were played out within two blocks of the American Philosophical Society, including the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and its ratification and distribution. Four of the five members of the drafting committee would become members of the Society, including the two central figures, Jefferson and Franklin. (Roger Sherman was the lone non-member.) Fifteen signers of the Declaration were members of the APS. In more obscure ways, too, the Society contributed to the revolutionary platform—in one case, physically. When the Declaration was read publicly in the State House yard on July 8th, 1776, John Nixon stood on a platform that had been erected by the APS for David Rittenhouse’s observation of the transit of Venus in 1769. As the Declaration was read that day, crowds cheered and the King’s arms were torn down from the State House. That evening, all across the city, bonfires blazed amid pealing bells and “other great Demonstrations of Joy.”
As talk of a rupture with Britain grew within the Continental Congress, a delegate from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, became the first to propose issuing a formal declaration of independence. Unfortunately, only a few days after presenting his proposal, Lee was unexpectedly called home on June 11th to tend to his ailing wife. During his absence, Thomas Jefferson drew up an aggressively eloquent document, producing fair (exact) copies written out in his own hand as a record. As Jefferson submitted his draft to Congress for debate on July 1st, he forwarded one of these fair copies to keep his old friend Lee apprised of events. Lee’s brother, Arthur, later a great diplomat, annotated the margins to record the changes in wording made during the Congressional debates (1).
Jefferson composed several handwritten copies of his drafts (five are known to exist today), and sent them to several people, including the other members of the committee for comment and suggestions (2). The final text was published in The Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6th (3).
In addition to the present draft, the first complete draft is housed at the Library of Congress. Other existing drafts of the Declaration may be found at the New York Public Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
1. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, ca. July 1, 1776
Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of a late draft of the Declaration of Independence shows marginal annotations by Richard Henry Lee. The annotations reflect the changes made during the debates surrounding the adoption of the declaration.
Jefferson’s draft was donated to the APS on August 19th, 1825, by Richard Henry Lee, Jr., the grandson of Richard Henry Lee.
2. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin requesting review of the Declaration of Independence, June 1776
Various copies of the draft were created for committee review. In this letter, Thomas Jefferson requests that Benjamin Franklin review an “inclosed paper,” most likely Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence:
The inclosed paper has been read and with some small alterations approved of by the committee. Will Doctr. Franklyn be so good as to peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate? The paper having been returned to me to change a particular sentiment or two, I propose laying it again before the committee tomorrow morning, if Doctr. Franklyn can think of it before that time.
This letter is part of the Fox collection of Benjamin Franklin Papers, donated to the American Philosophical Society by Charles Pemberton Fox and his sister Mary Fox in 1840. The Library has over 2/3 of the known papers of Franklin.
3. The Pennsylvania Evening Post, Saturday, July 6, 1776
This issue contains the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence.