Some of “the best” bits that didn’t make the final cut.
Thomas Jefferson is famous for writing the Declaration of Independence, but the final version Congress passed was not the version he submitted. Nearly a quarter of his words were cut. Jefferson referred to the edits as “mutilations” and John Adams said “they obliterated some of the best of it.”
The Declaration Of Independence As A Film
To understand what was cut out and why, it’s helpful to think of those passages as deleted scenes and the Declaration itself as a Hollywood film. Thomas Jefferson was the hot young writer, Congress was the bureaucratic studio, John Adams was the passionate director, and Benjamin Franklin was the old producer trying to keep everyone on track and lounging around on the casting couch.
There was a lot riding on this production. The Declaration was meant to encourage weary soldiers, convince fence-sitters of the king’s tyranny, and attract foreign allies to America’s aid. It needed to thrill and chill its audience like a summer blockbuster and inspire them like heart-wrenching Oscar-bait.
It had to be a critically-acclaimed populist propaganda film that played well domestically and internationally – Die Hard, Schindler’s List, and Field of Dreams all in one. The pressure was on for Jefferson.
One of the parts he hated most was getting notes. It’s frustrating process for any writer which can involve months of trying to please various people while maintaining a shred of creative integrity. For Thomas Jefferson, the process was condensed into one grueling night in the Pennsylvania State House where he writhed in silent discomfort as his masterpiece was eviscerated before his eyes.
John Adams vehemently defended Jefferson’s script, “fighting tirelessly for every word,” but Congress had final cut and multiple interests to serve.
Getting A PG Rating
Many changes were minor and served only to make the declaration slightly less incendiary. I go through a similar process with my emails, doing one last pass before sending to soften phrases like “screw you” to “best regards.”
Instead of saying they must “expunge” their former system of government, Congress changed it to “alter.” The King’s “unremitting” injuries became “repeated.” Even the very first sentence was toned down. Jefferson’s draft said “When, in the order of human events, it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained…” which was tweaked to “…it becomes necessary for a people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another.”
Jefferson’s intro evoked Tim Robbins basking in the rain after his triumphant prison break in The Shawshank Redemption, and they watered it down to Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz saying, “I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow.” It’s kind of amazing the whole Declaration of Independence wasn’t edited down to become The Polite Notification of Bother.
Improvisation On Set
One of the most memorable terms in the document wasn’t even Jefferson’s. His original draft said “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” I was surprised to discover Benjamin Franklin suggested the bolder “self-evident.”
I felt the same way when I found out one of the best lines in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was actually improvised by Sean Connery.
INDIANA JONES: How did you know she was a Nazi?
PROFESSOR HENRY JONES: She talks in her sleep.
When we think of the Declaration today, we think of the Preamble – the first two paragraphs. But most of the document was devoted to blaming King George III for all America’s troubles (it’s easier to focus hate on a person than an institution). But it comes off sounding like the rants of a jilted lover from Sex and the City.
“These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection,” Jefferson wrote, “and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren.” Jefferson loved Britain so hard even though she treated him bad; he had to man up and break it off.
He further resolved, “We must endeavor to forget our former love for them…We might have been a free and a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity.” Moving on is so tough because they could have been so good together. But that uppity broad, Britain, was too good for him now. Plus he needed his space anyway.
Those agonizing feelings of lost love were all scrapped. All that remained was the hopeful sentiment that Americans must hold the British “as we hold the rest of the mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.” Jefferson’s wounded breakup letter became a calmer plea of “Can we still be friends?”
Black And White
The greatest deleted scene from Jefferson’s Declaration was meant to be its climax. Jefferson fiercely accused King George of committing all manner of violent, tyrannous acts – he “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” This was the thrills and chills section, where the king encouraged “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
All of those grievances made the cut, but the most heinous of all was too controversial to pass.
Jefferson blamed King George for the horrors of the slave trade, saying:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.
Jefferson used the term “Christian” sarcastically, to point out how un-Christian he found the practice of slavery. He was basically blaming King George III for the slave trade, even though it existed long before he came along.
One reason this didn’t make the final cut was that more than a third of the Congress owned slaves. Jefferson himself had about 200 while he was denouncing the act on paper. Also, many understood how absurdly hypocritical it was to bring up the plight of slaves whose life and liberty were stolen when those same people were not included in the Preamble’s “all men are created equal” part.
Jefferson went on to say King George “is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them.” This, to me, is an even stranger argument. How dare you take away the freedom of these poor slaves and then encourage them to fight for their freedom against us, their masters? His climactic scene was full of plot holes.
Slavery was a lifelong conundrum for Jefferson. His first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave, and as David McCullough puts it, “in countless ways he had been carried ever since by slaves.” Had his attempt to condemn the slave trade made the final cut, it might have expedited the end of slavery in America, or at least encouraged Jefferson to do something about the heinous institution when he was president.
He often spoke in favor of abolition, but he didn’t think the idea was popular enough to succeed in his lifetime. Jefferson died a slaveowner, freeing only five slaves in his will. All five were related to Sally Hemings.
The Theatrical Cut
Jefferson’s original version of the Declaration was not distributed to the world, but it didn’t die that night in State House. He felt so strongly about his draft that he sent his director’s cut to friends, along with the final theatrical version and a note saying, “I enclose you a copy of the Declaration of Independence as agreed to by the house, and also as originally framed. You will judge whether it is the better or worse for the critics.”
The Declaration was approved by Congress on July 4th, 1776 and despite Jefferson’s feelings about its inadequacy, it was a hit – more of a sleeper hit than an instant blockbuster, as it gained prominence over time. For all the studio meddling, it surpassed its goals of rousing the American people and inspiring others worldwide.
It was also on July 4th, in 1826 – exactly 50 years later – that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. In the last letter he ever wrote, Jefferson said, “let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” Adams’s last words were reportedly “Thomas Jefferson survives,” but he was wrong. Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.
Both men survive in the American spirit of Independence Day, a holiday synonymous today with fireworks, barbecues, patriotism, and a pretty good weekend at the box office.