My sympathies to Mr. Jefferson

Th. Jefferson has been on my mind lately. My book club’s June selection was Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, which weighs in at 759 pages including index and notes but not including prologue. And July 4 is a week off, which always brings to mind my favorite musical, 1776.

Having grown up with the Broadway cast album and the script in paperback, I’d all but memorized 1776 before the family drove to Boston to retrace the Bicentennial trail. My sister and I sang the entire score and recited dialogue from memory in the back seat. I wonder now about the proportions in which this impressed, pleased, and aggravated our parents—whom I don’t recall saying much of anything except the occasional “volume, please.”

1776 brings America’s origins to life. The Founding Fathers are fully formed, real warts-and-all humans. The show is astoundingly funny—all the more given how little many of the lines are changed from letters and other things these folks actually wrote. And much of the “plot” is essentially as it happened. Sure, Martha Jefferson didn’t go to Philadelphia, and John Adams is a composite of himself and his cousin Sam, and a bunch of congressmen are left out, but again, a lot of the lines are paraphrased from what they or contemporaries really said, and overall, it’s a gripping history lesson. Not to mention it has William Daniels and Howard Da Silva and two of the most chilling, tearjerking songs ever and ….

But I digress from showing how I came to cringe along with Mr. Jefferson as he suffers an agonizing public editing by two dozen friends and foes. A writer, editor, or both today can observe the following:

–how he’s flattered, then bullied into drafting the Declaration[1]

–how his “editor” gripes about his procrastination[2]

–how he drags his feet until deadline[3]

–how others nitpick his wording choices[4]

–how others question why he included this and left out that[5]

–how others threaten to withhold support unless crucial sections are cut[6]

–how he feels beaten down by all these … revisions[7]

–and how, occasionally, the author wins the day[8]

Sound familiar?

A decade before becoming a writer and editor, at least professionally, I felt—through the words, music, and Ken Howard’s award-winning portrayal—the pain of having his carefully constructed work shredded hour by hour.

Yet, as Meacham points out in the book, “For all his momentary discomfort, Jefferson exercised an extraordinary measure of power by taking on drafting duties. However many changes came in, it was still his voice at the core of the enterprise. … With the power of the pen, he had articulated a new premise for the government of humanity: that all men were created equal.” (All white men of property, but hey, even that was a first.)

That’s a darned good legacy. He knew it—it was the first point of pride he wrote for his tombstone. And it underscored the importance of being the original writer, no many how much editing might be involved.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.


[1] Jefferson: “Mr. Adams, I have not seen my wife these past six months! I beg of you, Mr. Adams—”

John Adams [quotes from memory]: “ ‘And we solemnly declare that we will preserve our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die free men rather than to live slaves.’ Thomas Jefferson, ‘On the Necessity of Taking Up Arms,’ 1775. Magnificent! Why, you write 10 times better than any man in Congress. Including me. For a man of only 33 years, you have a happy talent of composition and a remarkable felicity of expression.”

[2] Adams: “I came here expecting to hear a pen scratching, not a bow.”

[3] Adams: “Do you mean to say that it is not yet finished?

Jefferson: “No sir. I mean to say that it is not yet begun.”

Adams: “Good God! A whole week! The entire earth was created in a week!”

Jefferson [drily]: “Someday you must tell me how you did it.”

[4] Adams: “Mr. Jefferson? It so happens that the word is un-alienable, not in-alienable.”

[5] Joseph Hewes: “Mr. Jefferson, nowhere do you mention deep-sea fishing rights.”

Adams: “Oh good God! Fishing rights? How long is this piddling to go on? We have been here for three solid days! We have endured, by my count, more than 85 separate changes and the removal of close to 400 words. Now, would you whip it and beat it ’til you break its spirit?”

[6] Edward Rutledge: “Remove the offending passage from your Declaration.”

Adams: “If we did that, we would be guilty of what we ourselves are rebelling against.”

Benjamin Franklin: “… First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”

Adams [long pause]: “Jefferson, say something.”

Jefferson: “What else is there to do?”

Adams: “Well, man, you’re the one who wrote it.”

Jefferson: “I wrote all of it, Mr. Adams.” [stands and goes to the Declaration, crosses out the clause]

[7] Adams: “Oh, be sensible, Bartlett; remove those phrases and the entire paragraph becomes meaningless! And it so happens that it’s one of the most stirring and poetic of any passage in the entire document. … Good God, Jefferson, when are you going to speak up for your own work?”

Jefferson: “I had hoped that the work would speak for itself.”

[8] Jefferson: “Just a moment, Mr. Thomson. I do not consent. The king is a tyrant whether we say so or not. We might as well say so.”

Charles Thomson: “But I already scratched it out.”

Jefferson: “Then scratch it back in!

John Hancock: “Put it back, Mr. Thomson. The king will remain a tyrant.”

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