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First draft of the Declaration of Independence

In this video, Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson talks to Sal about  the Declaration of Independence. Created by Sal Khan and Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

Male 1: In the last few videos we looked at the final version, the Declaration of Independence as it was approved of. Here it seems like we have a very not final version of the Declaration. Male 2: What's really amazing is they go through five drafts at least of the Declaration. It's wonderful to watch how each of the drafts changes. You have this committee of real people. Jefferson and Adams and Franklin are all part of that committee. Jefferson is using a lap desk, one of those little things he invented, so he could stand up or sit down and write this in a little room on Market Street. Then he shows it to Adams and he shows it to Franklin, very deferential, he said, "With your broadened view of the world, Dr. Franklin, perhaps you can make some suggestions." Male 1: Franklin and Adams could be his father. Male 2: Right, right. Jefferson's only 33. Really, really young. You have Franklin and Adams, Franklin's hitting 70s then, and very much of a father figure. But you see real people working together in these rooms on Market Street in Philadelphia, trying to craft this document. Male 1: Yeah, yeah, and you see it here. This looks like someone editing a paper. Male 2: Which shows you how important it is to edit, in a way. Those of us who are writers and editors, we like the fact that you should really quibble over each word. These are words that matter. For example, you can see they put in a little phrase right here, "separate and equal station." In other words, America's going to become a separate nation and an equal nation. That word "separate and equal" actually goes down in American history with some resonance because it's used for a while to defend segregation. Even when they get the words almost perfect, they have a resonance that they have to be careful about. Male 1: Do you think they realized when they were writing it how important this document was going to be? Male 2: One of the amusing things is this was not considered the most important committee to be on in June and July of 1776. In fact, John Adams thinks he's already written the great document of American Revolution, which is a document written in May asking the various colonies to get rid of their Royal governors because we were going to break away. So Adams is quite willing to let Jefferson write this draft because he thinks that this is not the most important of all the documents. Male 1: And on some level, to defend Adams a little bit, that does seem like a big deal. This was in May of 1776 he writes once you're getting rid of your Royal governors you really are separating yourself. Male 2: And they've already had a vote to be independent. So this is just a document, "let Facts be submitted to a candid world," "the opinions of mankind ... they should declare the causes." This is really just their public relations document. But, the reason it turns out to be so important is it's so beautifully written, it becomes the American creed. When they get together in these rooms and edit it, suddenly they say, "All men are created equal." This becomes not just a propaganda document, but a mission statement for who we are as a people. Male 1: And to some degree the power of poetry. They could have said these exact same things in very terse and ... Male 2: This is why it was so good Jefferson wrote it because Franklin is a very good writer, but he's a very simple, plain writer. He writes Poor Richard's Almanac, "A penny saved is a penny earned." He's one of the first Americans not to write in a very flowery way. John Adams' letters are very beautiful, but they're kind of pompous and orotund and self important. You have a beautiful poet in Jefferson, but as we're looking at this document on the screen, even he benefits from some good edits. Male 1: This is literally Jefferson's handwriting we see here. Male 2: This is Jefferson's handwriting on the first draft. It's in the Library of Congress if you want to go see it. The final document is in the National Archives, about eight blocks away. It's really wonderful to look at all of these documents, especially, I mean what do you see here where they edit the great second paragraph? Male 1: "We hold these truths to be self evident." You mentioned earlier that before it was written, what, "sacred and ... Male 2: Undeniable. Yeah. They're using the word "sacred" for the truths when Jefferson writes the first draft. To me, if you look at the backslashes, the dark backslashes there, those are Benjamin Franklin's backslashes I'm pretty sure because he used a printer's pen and he was a publisher, so he used that sort of backslashes to cross things out. He writes the words "self evident." One of the things is we historians never fully know. Carl Becker, who was a great historian of the Declaration, he's the one who said that that was probably Franklin's edit. For me, I've spent a lot of time in Ben Franklin's papers, which were at Yale University Library. To me, it really feels like his handwriting. So we assume that it's Ben Franklin who takes out "sacred" because he doesn't want "these truths" to be based on religion. He wants "these truths" to be based on rationality and reason. Male 1: So once again it's not only the style of the crossing out, this is in line with Franklin's personality and beliefs. Male 2: Franklin was somebody who had read the great thinkers of the British and Scottish Enlightenment. That means John Locke, David Hume. David Hume was a person who came up with the concept of "self evident truths." A self evident truth would be that all bachelors aren't married, as opposed to a more contingent truth like Philadelphia is smaller than London. Male 1: Kind of in math an axiom. Male 2: An axiom, exactly. The fact that two plus three is five, that's not something that has to be further proved. These are somewhat "self evident." That's what Hume does and Franklin loves that. Franklin loves Isaac Newton, too, because Franklin is a scientist. He believes that there are laws of nature, of nature's God, and that there are certain self evident truths, so he doesn't want the word "sacred" in there because that kind of seems like divine right of kings. God's the one who made these truths. He's saying, "no." As we've discussed that whole paragraph, it's about rationality and reason getting us to those truths. Male 1: Right, but they also do talk about, as we talked about previously, there's a balance here because they do talk about "created equal." Male 2: Well, let's look. Tell us, what do you see there? This edit, it says that they were had certain inherent and inalienable rights. You see John Adams, and we're pretty sure that's John Adams' writing, not just because of his writing, but because of the concept. He was a little bit more religious than the others on the committee. He says, "They're endowed by their Creator." He puts in that phrase "by their Creator" with certain inalienable rights. It's a balance. It's a balance between rationality and reason, which is self evident, and divine providence, this notion that we're all children of the same Creator and therefore we're all endowed with certain inalienable rights. Male 1: Yeah, this is really amazing. Just to realize that they were human beings kind of forging through this. Male 2: Yeah, they're real human beings who were probably arguing just like you. Jefferson gets really upset at someone; not at Franklin and Adams, but other people start editing it. Franklin tells them this wonderful story about when he was a young tradesman in Philadelphia and somebody had a sign about selling hats and everybody tried to edit the sign for them. Franklin said, "That's why I've never been on a committee that's going to have a lot of people editing what I write." But, those of us who are editors, we kind of think those edits actually improve the document. Male 1: Yeah, it seemed like it turned out a pretty good result. Male 2: You know, you don't get much better than "We hold these truths to be self evident."