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, its ratification, and distribution. Four of the five members of the drafting committee would become members of the Society, including the two central figures, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (Roger Sherman was the lone non-member), and perhaps more impressively, fifteen members of the APS signed the Declaration. 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, the crowd cheered and the King’s arms were torn down from the State House, and 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, his old friend, Thomas Jefferson, drew up an aggressively eloquent document, producing two or three 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 (changes that irked Jefferson), noting everything from small alterations in word choice to the major excision of a passage condemning slavery to appease the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and (as Jefferson observed) to ease the consciences of those northern delegates who traded in slaves.
Jefferson's draft of the Declaration was donated to the APS on August 19th, 1825, by Richard Henry Lee, Jr., the grandson of Jefferson's friend.
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin requesting review of the Declaration of Independence, June 1776
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.
Jefferson composed several handwritten copies of his drafts, of which five are known to exist today, and sent them to several people, including the other members of the committee, probably with accompanying letters similar to the one featured here. The first complete draft of the Declaration is held at the Library of Congress, though a few years ago a fragment of what is believed to be an earlier draft was found.
First Printing of the Articles of Confederation, 1776
The first frame of government fashioned for the United States was actually framed prior to independence. Its origins can be traced to June 11th, 1776, when a committee was appointed in Congress to draft a structure for the new American government. By July 12th, John Dickinson presented his committee’s proposal, and eighty copies were soon printed for use by the members of Congress. However between the necessities of managing the war and political debate, it was not until March 1st, 1781, that the thirteen soon-to-be-former colonies finally ratified the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States.
While the Articles promised a perpetual union, they did not promise a strong union. The unicameral legislature they created specified that no fewer than two nor more than seven delegates would represent each state, but as a result of allowing each state only one vote, a small state like Rhode Island was accorded equal power with larger states like New York. Even those powers reserved to the general government – foreign affairs, war, the postal service, coinage, credit, and Indian affairs – were severely restricted. Thus almost from the moment of ratification, the general government sought to replace the Articles with a more powerful instrument, reserving greater power to the general government. The Articles expired on March 1st, 1789, when they were replaced by the current Constitution.
The APS copy of the first printing of the Articles of Confederation, 1776, was purchased from the Library of Benjamin Franklin in 1803, and the notations that appear on the document are Franklin’s own. Of the eighty copies printed, perhaps fewer than half survive.