It was a hot sticky day in the early part of June 1776 in Philadelphia. The representatives of the thirteen colonies had been meeting together considering something of enormous import. A proposal was before them that the colonies individually state their independence from the Mother Country.
Thomas Paine, in a pamphlet entitled “Common Sense,” had said it made no more sense for America to continue to have allegiance to Britain than for a young person to continue living with their family into old age. “Common Sense” dictated that a change needed to be made. That was the consensus as far as the representatives of the Congress were concerned. So they voted on this proposal and twelve of the thirteen voted in favor; New York did not vote.
They then asked five men -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston -- to spend time drafting a specific declaration of independence. The five men met together and determined that the most suitable person to do it was Thomas Jefferson, even though he was the youngest member of the five. In fact, Jefferson was the youngest member of the Congress but a brilliant young man.
He went to his lodgings, got his little writing desk, put it on his knee, and set to work. He obviously drew a lot from work he had already done on the Constitution of his home state of Virginia. It is very obvious that much of his thinking was derived from his extensive reading on the Roman Republic and also on the writings of the scholar John Locke.
Jefferson came up with his initial draft and sent it round by messenger to the lodging of his good friend, Benjamin Franklin, who also consulted with John Adams. Adams read it and felt that he certainly couldn’t match the literary skills of Jefferson, so he didn’t make any recommendations at all, although he did say, that he had some reservations about George III being called a tyrant. Adams certainly agreed that George III had his problems but tyranny was not one of them, but he didn’t say anything about it.
Benjamin Franklin, who made his money in printing and publishing, however, went through the documents with more care and made a number of suggestions, all of which Jefferson accepted. The draft declaration was then taken to the Congress, and they did what committees tend to do -- they started going over it, and they made many, many changes to what Jefferson had written. Jefferson was not particularly happy about this. Ben Franklin recognized that he wasn’t very happy about it, and took time out to tell him a very funny story, which I’d like very much to tell you but I don’t have time. It’s rather nice to know that even at that particular time Franklin, at least, had a sense of humor -- even if Jefferson couldn’t see the humor in his work of art being cut and pasted as it was.