Writing Our Way to Independence
Those around me grow tired and roll their eyes at my unrelenting refrain: Words matter.
Well, they can just flip their burgers this Fourth of July and tuck in for the picnic — because the fireworks and parades, concerts and flag-waving we enjoy today began with well-chosen, gracefully crafted words.
1,337 words to be exact. That’s the word count (excluding names of the signatories) of our Declaration of Independence — a fine piece of patriotic prose that lit the fuse that fired the shot that launched these free, independent, imperfect, and ever-aspiring United States of America.
I love words and I love stories. So, when the two come together — the stories behind the words — well, just avert your eyes for a moment while I do my geeky happy dance. And indulge me, please, in some revolutionary ruminations:
Insurrection by committee. Writing the Declaration must have been a messy business, as all committee assignments are. While Thomas Jefferson is recognized as the principal author, the Continental Congress appointed five individuals to create the destiny-defining document. In addition to Jefferson, the committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Interestingly enough, Livingston ultimately refused to sign the Declaration, believing it to be too soon to sever ties with the mother ship.
There must have been red ink in those quill pens. Everyone’s an editor, it seems. Jefferson received 86 changes to the initial draft — and cuts that shortened the Declaration by more than a fourth. Brevity and a thick writer’s skin for the win!
Who’s counting? July 4th has a nice Liberty Bell-ish ring to it, but American independence was actually declared on July 2, 1776. The Continental Congress approved the Declaration on July 4, 1776 — and signing occurred nearly a month later, on August 2, 1776.
Colonial crib sheets. Writers seek inspiration — and good source material. Jefferson and team were no exception. George Mason penned Virginia’s Declaration of Rights in May 1776 and some of his best lines made their way, with some adjustment, into the U.S. Declaration. For example, Mason wrote ‘all men are born equally free and independent,’ and described the ‘natural rights’ of man to include ‘Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.’ We think even Mason would agree that Jefferson’s ‘inalienable rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ reads and rolls off the tongue far better.
Making the case against a king. It’s no coincidence that all five Declaration of Independence writers were lawyers. They knew that declaring sovereignty and separation from Great Britain would require the support of Congress and colonists — and a compelling, rock-solid case. They shouldered the burden of proof and laid out a lengthy accounting of King George III’s injustices. What follows the Declaration’s introductory paragraph and preamble is a damning list of 28 precise and pejorative grievances, including this zinger: ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’ And this may-it-please-the-court, mic drop summation: ‘A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.’ Bam!
Words matter — and move us to action. Communications expert and professor Stephen E. Lucas has this to say in his authoritative treatise on the subject: ‘The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most masterfully written state paper of Western civilization.’ It articulates, passionately and rationally, a call for abolishing allegiance to the British Crown and creating a free and independently-governed nation. Thanks to history teachers and deep-seated patriotic pride, we all know the rest of the story. But here’s an example of audience reaction I just love: On July 9, 1776, General George Washington read the Declaration of Independence in front of New York’s City Hall. Those hearing the words for the first time erupted in cheers, tore down a statue of George III — and melted the edifice into musket balls for the young American army.
Words become legacy. We know the lines well, and will likely hear them recited tonight, as dark falls, sparklers are lit and John Sousa marches fill the air: ‘When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.’
And, of course: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
Words matter. They last. Done well, they become the sound and echo and very soul of a people. They move us, in the most difficult of times, to action. They connect us, in the most divisive of times, to one another — and to history. So, before you head to the pool or the park today, before you pop a cold one or cut yourself another piece of apple pie, do yourself a favor: Have a quick read.