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Standing Over Jefferson’s Shoulder

Jefferson draft Declaration of Independence

I made a pilgrimage this afternoon to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to see something special: a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand. For a moment I resisted the impulse to go, arguing with myself over the value of totems when what really matters are the ideas, not the artifacts, blah blah blah. Thankfully I lost that argument with myself. Totems and artifacts are important – they bind us to the particulars of abstract ideas and history; they allow us to imaginatively jump across the expanse of time and connect directly with the humanity of our ancestors. They help remind us that history, of even the most momentous variety, is made by people.

The documents, two sheets of paper or perhaps parchment, filled on both sides with Jefferson’s incredibly compact handwriting, were amazing to observe. Unfortunately these were not early drafts – there were no scratch outs or arrows indicating where sections should be moved. That would have been wonderful to see, a window into his mind as a writer, but what we have is invaluable. This draft, prepared by Jefferson for handoff to the Continental Congress, contains the famous condemnation of slavery that was later excised in order to guarantee sign off by some of the Southern states.

The way the documents were presented – standing up in glass cases that allowed viewers to read them from a distance of about 12 inches – one could imagine peering over Jefferson’s shoulder as he took painstaking care to prepare a flawless copy. There were things that were amusing and touching about the way he prepared the document. Though a draft, he took care to embellish the manuscript by hand drawing the kind of large type a printer would use to call out “United States of America”. He clearly wanted to convey the importance of what he was doing.

I spent awhile pouring over the papers, noting the particular style of his handwriting – the way he made his d’s and his t’s, how he used punctuation and, I admit, trying in vain to see of I could catch him using a semi-colon incorrectly (I could not). It was great fun. But what struck me as more moving than witnessing the document itself was observing a grandfather and his grandson (pictured above) discussing it and what it meant. As the older man recited the well known chronology of American independence the young man stared intently at the handwritten words on the page. Watching them I remembered the first rush of recognition I experienced when, as a teenager, it dawned on me for the first time that all the history I’d been taught in school, all the characters whose images and names were carved into stone pediments – the country itself – was the invention of men and women of flesh and blood, frail and courageous and imperfect and full of hope. When that moment of recognition comes it’s a wonderful thing.

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