The Literary Qualities of the Declaration of Independence
By Carl Becker
Jefferson was chosen to draft the Declaration because he was known to possess a "masterly
pen." There were perhaps other reasons, but this was the chief one. When he came to Congress
in 1775, "he brought with him," says John Adams, "a reputation for literature, science, and a
happy talent for composition. Writings of his were handed about remarkable for the peculiar
felicity of expression."1 Peculiar felicity of expression — the very words which one would
perhaps choose to sum up the distinguishing characteristics of Jefferson's style.

Like many men who write with felicity, Jefferson was no orator. He rarely, if ever, made a
speech. "During the whole time I sat with him in Congress," John Adams says, "I never heard
him utter three sentences together" — that is, on the floor of Congress; in committees and in
conversation he was, on the contrary, "prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive."2 It might seem
that a man who can write effectively should be able to speak effectively. It sometimes happens.
But one whose ear is sensitive to the subtler, elusive harmonies of expression, one who in
imagination hears the pitch and cadence and rhythm of the thing he wishes to say before he says
it, often makes a sad business of public speaking because, painfully aware of the imperfect
felicity of what has been uttered, he forgets what he ought to say next. He instinctively wishes
to cross out what he has just said, and say it over again in a different way — and this is what he
often does, to the confusion of the audience. In writing he can cross out and rewrite at leisure,
as often as he likes, until the sound and the sense are perfectly suited — until the thing
composes. The reader sees only the finished draft.

Not that Jefferson wrote with difficulty, constructing his sentences with slow and painful
effort. One who, as an incident to a busy public career, wrote so much and so well, must have
written with ease and rapidity. But Jefferson, as the original drafts of his papers show, revised
and corrected his writings with care, seeking, yet without wearing his soul threadbare in the
search, for the better word, the happier phrase, the smoother transition. His style has not indeed
the achieved perfection, the impeccable surface, of that of a master-craftsman like Flaubert, or
Walter Pater; but neither has it the objectivity, the impersonal frigidity of writing that is perhaps
too curiously and deliberately integrated, too consciously made. Having something to say, he
says it, with as much art as may be, yet not solely for the art's sake, aiming rather at the ease,
the simplicity, the genial urbanity of cultivated conversation. The grace and felicity of his style
have a distinctly personal flavor, something Jeffersonian in the implication of the idea, or in the
beat and measure of the words. Franklin had equal ease, simplicity, felicity; but no one who
knows the writings of Franklin could attribute the Declaration to him. Jefferson communicated
an undefinable yet distinctive quality to the Declaration which makes it his.

The Declaration is filled with these felicities of phrase which bear the stamp of Jefferson's mind
and temperament: a decent respect to the opinions of mankind; more disposed to suffer, while
evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are
accustomed; for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures; sent
hither swarms of officers to harrass our people and eat out their substance; hold them as we
hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. There are some sentences in the
Declaration which are more than felicitous. The closing sentence, for example, is perfection
itself. Congress amended the sentence by including the phrase, "with a firm reliance upon the
protection of divine Providence." It may be that Providence always welcomes the responsibilities
thrust upon it in times of war and revolution; but personally, I like the sentence better as
Jefferson wrote it. "And for the support of this Declaration we mutually pledge to each other
our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." It is true (assuming that men value life more than
property, which is doubtful) that the statement violates the rhetorical rule of climax; but it was a
sure sense that made Jefferson place 'lives' first and 'fortunes' second. How much weaker if he
had written "our fortunes, our lives, and our sacred honor!" Or suppose him to have used the
word 'property' instead of 'fortunes!' Or suppose him to have omitted 'sacred!' Consider the
effect of omitting any of the words, such as the last two 'ours' — "our lives, fortunes, and
sacred honor." No, the sentence can hardly be improved.

There are probably more of these Jeffersonian felicities in the Declaration than in any other
writing by him of equal length. Jefferson realized that, if the colonies won their independence,
this would prove to be a public document of supreme importance; and the Rough Draft (which
may not be the first one) bears ample evidence of his search for the right word, the right
phrasing. In the opening sentence, not at all bad as it originally stood, there are four corrections.
The first part of the second paragraph seems to have given him much trouble. The Rough Draft
reads as follows:
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When Jefferson submitted the draft to Adams the only correction which he had made was to
write 'self-evident’ in place of 'sacred & undeniable.' It is interesting to guess why, on a later
reading, the other changes were made. I suspect that he erased '& independent' because, having
introduced 'self-evident,' he did not like the sound of the two phrases both closing with 'dent.'
The phrase 'they are endowed by their creator' is obviously much better than 'from that equal
creation'; but this correction, as he first wrote it, left an awkward wording: 'that they are
endowed by their creator with equal rights some of which are inherent & inalienable among
which are.' Too many 'which ares'; and besides, why suppose that some rights given by the
creator were inherent and some not? Thus we get the form, which is so much stronger, as well
as more agreeable to the ear: 'that they are endowed by their creator with inherent & inalienable
rights.' Finally, why say 'the preservation of life'? If a man has a right to life, the right to preserve
life is manifestly included.

Again, take the close of the last paragraph but one. The Rough Draft gives the following reading:
The phrase 'to happiness & to glory' is better than 'to glory & happiness.' Placing "glory" before
"happiness" might imply that the first aim of the colonists was glory, and that their happiness
would come as an incident to the achievement of glory. What needed to be expressed was the
idea that the colonists were defending the natural right to happiness, and that the vindication of
this inherent human right would confer glory upon them. Did Jefferson, in making the change,
reason thus? Probably not. Upon reading it over he doubtless instinctively felt that by placing
'happiness' first and repeating the 'to' he would take the flatness out of a prosaic phrase. As for
the latter part of the sentence, Jefferson evidently first wrote it: 'climb it in a separate state.' Not
liking the word "state," he erased 'state' and 'in a' and added '-ly' to 'separate': so that it read: 'we
will climb it separately.' But no, on second thought, that is not much better. 'Climb it apart from
them' — that would do. So apparently it read when the Declaration was adopted, since 'climb' and
not 'tread' is the reading of all but one of the copies, including the text finally adopted. It may be
that Jefferson made the change during the debates in Congress, and then thought better of it, or
neglected to get the change incorporated in the final text. There is another correction in the Rough
Draft which does not appear in the final form of the Declaration. "Our repeated petitions have
been answered only by repeated injury" — so the Declaration reads; but in the Rough Draft the
'injury' has been changed to 'injuries.' This is manifestly better; and as one can hardly suppose
Congress would have preferred 'injury' to 'injuries,’ it is probable that the change was made after
the Declaration was adopted. Jefferson had something of the artist's love of perfection for its own
sake, the writer's habit of correcting a manuscript even after it has been published.

Apart from the peculiar felicities of phrasing, what strikes one particularly in reading the
Declaration as a whole is the absence of declamation.   Everything considered, the Declaration is
brief, free of verbiage, a model of clear, concise, and simple statement.   In 1856 Rufus Choate
referred to it as "that passionate and eloquent manifesto," made up of "glittering and sounding
generalities of natural right."3 Eloquent the Declaration frequently is, in virtue of a certain high
seriousness with which Jefferson contrived to invest what was ostensibly a direct and simple
statement of fact. Of all words in the language, 'passionate' is the one which is least applicable to
Jefferson or to his writings.   As to 'generalities,' the Declaration contains relatively few; and if
those few are 'glittering and sounding' it is in their substance and not in their form that they are
so.  
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