The Practical Idealist

Who Authored the Declaration of Independence?

Jefferson's Tombstone

Jefferson’s Design for his Tombstone

Who Authored the Declaration of Independence?

by Neil C. Olsen.

Who authored the Declaration of Independence? According to Jefferson, he did. About the time he wrote and signed his final will in March of 1826, he designed his gravestone.  It was to be an obelisk, with the following inscription:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.”

Yet did he author it?

We have seven extant versions of the Declaration, from Jefferson’s first draft in his hand to the final “engrossed” copy that was hand scribed then signed on August 2, 1776.  We also have John Adams grumbling disagreement of Jefferson’s sole authorship in a letter to Pickering, in 1822: “As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.”  So who is right?

It turns out that both are partially right, though Adams was closer to being right than Jefferson.  But the core expression of the document, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. —” was not hackneyed at all, but the expression of the latest moral philosophy taught in the American Enlightenment colleges of Yale, King’s College, and the College of Philadelphia. And over half the men who contributed to the congress, and half who voted on it, show evidence that they embraced its philosophy, the philosophy of the American Mind.

On July 4, 2013, I released for publication the first edition of my book Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress, from Nonagram Publications. The book began as an investigation starting in 2008 of where the phrase “the pursuit of Happiness” came from. It used the method of organizational culture to trace what George Washington called in his farewell address the “indispensable supports” of “Religion and Morality”, and their “connections with private and public felicity”. It was also used to trace the change that John Adams in 1815 identified “in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” It is essentially an attempt to objectively quantify what we would call the “values and norms” of the people who contributed to the Declaration of Independence.  It turned out it was Jefferson, writing alone at his desk in Philadelphia, who was not the author.  Instead, it was some 106 men working over 22 months in the institution of the Continental Congress brought forth what is sometimes called “the Instrument of Democracy.”

From the beginning, the Declaration was meant to be a press release issued out of the “Committee as a Whole”, that is, the whole Continental Congress meeting together. Congress received the Lee Resolution declaring independence from Great Britain on June 7, 1776 On June 11, one very important committee was appointed of thirteen members – one from each state – to draft the Articles of Confederation. In Congress, the more important the decision the more members were assigned to the committee – three being typical for most matters, while 13 were needed for matters of the highest importance. Also on June 11, 1776, a “Committee of Five” was appointed to draft a sort of press release announcing their decision to separate from Britain. The Congressional Journal would typically list the man who got the most votes on the committee assignment first, and that person would typically be the chairman of the committee. They chose Mr. Jefferson, Mr. J Adams, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Sherman, and Mr. R.R. Livingston.

Jefferson was thus the chair. Sometime in June he sat down and wrote several drafts of the Declaration of Independence. Though he possibly had at hand a draft letter containing George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, and a newspaper copy of it, he claimed later that it was written from memories of documents of “public right”:

“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”

This draft was carefully edited by the other Committee of Five members. Many of the changes reflect the words and habits of Benjamin Franklin in particular. Jefferson presented the edited version to the Committee of the Whole, who edited it further. Then it was released to the world both as a printed broadside for newspapers, and later, as the famous hand scripted “engrossed” and signed copy.  One irony of the document is that some of the famous “signers” did not debate or contribute to the document, and some who debated it were not around to sign it on August 2, 1776, nor had a chance to come back and sign it later.

Jefferson’s first draft was the one he strongly preferred. Jefferson initially criticized the changes made to the document. Yet by the time he died, he had laid aside his decade’s long opinion that his original was the superior version  to claim on his gravestone that he was the proud author of the now hallowed document.

It is instructive to compare Jefferson’s draft with the Committee edits, and the Committee’s draft with Congress’s edits to see how much of the document was really Jefferson’s. But you can easily try an objective experiment yourself.

  1. Get a hold of a digitized text version of Jefferson’s initial or “Fair copy”, which is a scholar’s best guess at Jefferson’s original draft,  and change every occurrence of  “&” to “and’ (& there are some 58 of them). Get a copy of the engrossed copy. Or go to, and use its comparison which will save you some editing.
  2. Store them in files. You may wish to modernize all spellings of, say, honour vs. honor, so you only look for important changes – though I thought the distinction between Government and Governments was important and counted it as a change. For comparison, I checked both the changes the “important bits” – the title, the two paragraphs of the preamble, and the concluding paragraph,  and then the whole document including the list of grievances. I used Microsoft Word’s compare tool, ignoring case, and counting the date as two words.

According to my count (others may differ by a few words):

  w/o grievances w/ grievances
Jefferson’s first draft total words 548 1371
Engrossed copy total words 512 1677
Words deleted 137 614
Words added 107 236
Words kept 411 757
Percent deleted words from first draft 34% 36%
Percent added words from first draft 27% 14%
Total change from first draft 61% 50%
Percent deleted words in engrossed copy 39% 46%
Percent added words in engrossed copy 30% 18%
Total change from engrossed 69% 64%

Jefferson’s verbose 1,713 word document was trimmed to 1,335 immortal words by two committees. If you look take out the grievances, and simply sum the percentages, 61% of the document was changed from the first (or alternatively, 69% was changed of the final engrossed). If you include the grievances, 50% of the document was changed. If you compare deletions and additions to the size of the engrossed final copy, only 31% of Jefferson’s words were retained from the  title, preamble, and conclusion, and only 36% of the document overall.  That means only about one third of the Jefferson’s original document is in the engrossed copy of the Declaration.   It is probably fair to say that only between one third to one half of the Declaration was Jefferson’s, the rest is the work of two committees.  In fact, the Declaration of Independence is perhaps the finest example of a successful work written by a committee.

Jefferson was outraged by what he saw as the mutilation of his document. He fired off copies of his original draft to friends – quite contrary to the official secrecy oaths of the Congress – so that history would see his original, and in his opinion, much superior draft.

History did not support Jefferson’s opinion.

Over the next few months and years after its release, the members of Congress seemed to have forgotten the document they saw as merely a press release. In subsequent decades, many even misremembered the famous phrase as “life, liberty, and property”. But the public, ignoring its leaders, began a process of veneration about 1800, as newspaper editors launched celebrations of independence as Adams predicted, save they were on the Fourth of July and not the Second. By around 1815, both Adams and Jefferson began to notice this, and started jostling for credit – the other members of the Committee of Five having died by then, leaving the field open to them.

Trumbull's Presentation of the Declaration

Trumbull’s Presentation of the Declaration

In 1817,  painter John Trumbull was commissioned to paint the presentation of the Declaration to Congress. Jefferson was consulted by the painter, and it is no accident that he is by far the most prominent figure. The painting was placed in the Capital’s rotunda in 1826, enshrining his vision. Jefferson’s tombstone designed that same year and carved in 1833, like a giant nail fixing his place in history, was intended to seal his authorship of the Declaration for eternity. The document he had derided became the document he authored, and was raised to the status of an American Scripture. Jefferson’s skillful and successful campaign to claim credit for it was capped by his Obelisk.

If Jefferson was not the author of the Declaration, he certainly might claim credit as “the Father of American Marketing”.

For more details, see a MS Word generated comparison file of Jefferson’s draft against the embossed copy.

Or read the book Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress.


Note: The images of Jefferson’s tomb design and the Trumbull painting are courtesy of the Library of Congress

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