Editing the Declaration of Independence

I spent part of the long holiday weekend rewatching an episode or two of HBO’s John Adams.

Of course, being me, I love the scene that depicts the editing of the Declaration of Independence.

If you’ll recall, Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were appointed as a committee to draft the Declaration. Then, Adams had talked Jefferson into doing the actual writing, citing his skill with the written word and the fact that Adams himself was far too busy (aside from sitting on various committee, Adams was bearing the greatest share of the burden of arguing for independence, while Jefferson never opened his mouth during the debate).

In this scene, Adams and Ben Franklin are getting their first look at what Jefferson has written, and reacting to it, and offering changes. Having been in this situation myself so many thousands of times with writers who sometimes regarded their words as perfect, I enjoyed watching the dynamics.

First observation: Adams starts out by praising Jefferson’s work to the skies — a fitting approach given the document he’s editing, but one that is wildly at odds with my own approach. As Dave Moniz used to say when he worked for me, the highest praise I ever offered of writers’ work was “pretty good.” Maybe I should have tried this approach; it seems to have led to a good result.

Then there is Jefferson’s unnerving passivity through most of the process — an almost autistic lack of emotion. I’ve had writers fly off the handle at my changes, or be philosophically diplomatic about it. But never anyone with this staring, shrugging apathy. Change to “self-evident?” Yeah, whatevs…

Even when Adams says some of it might not be the way he would have said it, but he will still defend every word, Jefferson has no gratitude, but shrugs, “Well, it’s what I believe…”

Nevertheless, Jefferson proves he’s not an automaton when Franklin (being a newspaper editor himself, Ben had a knack for this) finally gets a rise out of him, and Jefferson says, still in that cold-fish voice, “Every single word was precisely chosen. I assure you of that, Dr. Franklin.” To which Franklin, unfazed, essentially says yeah, that may be the case, but you don’t get the final word; we’ve got to get this thing through Congress.

Adams was (in an unaccustomed role for him) cheerleading the document, while Franklin was determined to edit it. Normally, I’m an Adams fan, but in this case, it’s Ben I identified with. You can’t let writers get an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What do they think they are, editors?

Anyway, this is my belated Independence Day post…


9 thoughts on “Editing the Declaration of Independence

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Do you actually think most of them listened to it before going on the attack? I’m sure most just repeated what they found in the echo chamber of the uninformed…

        1. Claus2

          Let’s me try to understand… so you’re saying the Republicans complaining about NPR aren’t any different than the Democrats complaining about FoxNews? Weird.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I have no idea. I don’t watch TV news, but I do know a good bit about NPR, and I’m familiar with the dynamics of social media and the way memes take off.

            But yeah, these days all sorts of people tee off on things that they haven’t studied first…

    1. Jim Cross

      The other reason Adams got Jefferson to write it was because Adams was “obnoxious and disliked, you know that, sir.”

      Had to get that “1776” reference in. 🙂 And yes, I know that Adams actually said that he was ” obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yep. Some people in the Congress would have rejected it just because Adams wrote it.

        Jefferson hadn’t engaged in the independence debate at all, so nobody was mad at him…

  1. Jim Cross

    “1776” also has one of the better musical takedown of Congress in the song “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve.” My favorite verse:

    I do believe you’ve laid a curse on North America.
    A curse that we now here rehearse in Philadelphia.
    A second flood, a simple famine.
    Plagues of locusts everywhere.
    Or a cataclysmic earthquake I’d accept with some despair.
    But, no … you sent us Congress.
    Good God, sir, was that fair?


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