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A strange road to independence

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 2001


It was sweltering in Philadelphia that day. Mosquitoes and horseflies from the stable next door drilled in the stifling air of Carpenter's Hall. But the delegates were stoic in formal coats, wigs and frilly shirtfronts, swatting and sweating through the hot, slow hours as they debated the treasonous document.

It was sweltering in Philadelphia that day. Mosquitoes and horseflies from the stable next door drilled in the stifling air of Carpenter's Hall. But the delegates were stoic in formal coats, wigs and frilly shirtfronts, swatting and sweating through the hot, slow hours as they debated the treasonous document.

"The horseflies swarmed thick and fierce, alighting on the legs of the members and biting hard through their thin silk stockings," Thomas Jefferson, who kept careful notes, wrote in his record of July 4, 1776. "Handkerchief in hand, they lashed at the hungry pests to no avail."

On a table at the front lay a final draft of the Declaration of Independence -- mostly composed by the 33-year-old Jefferson, with flourishes by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and others -- handwritten and cluttered with strikeouts and revised passages, reflecting days of debate by the Second Continental Congress.

Many changes, substantive and stylistic, were painful to Jefferson. He was a slaveholder whose charge that Britain's king fostered slavery had been removed from the text. He was an elegant writer who loved the cadences of Homer and may have seen his own prose as more than a resounding statement of principles for the founding of the nation: something visually poetic, perhaps, even musical; a script for a reading performance.

That is one of many insightful theories that Jay Fliegelman, a professor of English and American studies at Stanford University, explored in his book, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language and the Culture of Performance, and in a recent interview.

"The Declaration of Independence has come to be a visual icon," Fliegelman said. "Just by its shape and contours we recognize it as a famous work of art. But in addition it's a piece of music that has to be played on the human voice. It is written in a musical register. You hear it in the litany of grievances. If we don't know how to hear it, we lose some of the sense.

"It's not just in the meaning of the words. It's in the music of the words, the measured cadences. The Declaration is an argument. We've come to think of it almost as a statute. But I think of it as a script for a performance. The power of the voice to move the heart is as powerful as the argument to convince the mind."

The Declaration -- the centerpiece of many Fourth of July celebrations -- will be "performed" by an ensemble of actors at Independence Hall in Philadelphia today, using an original copy of the Declaration discovered at a flea market in Pennsylvania 12 years ago and bought last year by producer Norman Lear and Internet entrepreneur David Hayden for $8.14-million. The copy will be sent with other historic documents on a three-year national tour that its owners hope will inspire a renewal of patriotism.

The inspirational and persuasive powers of the Declaration were of vital concern 225 years ago as well. Fighting had been under way for more than a year since the first shots at Lexington and Concord; grievances had accumulated and the delegates knew the time was ripe for separation from Britain. But the right words and ringing phrases were needed to bring a nation to life.

The Declaration was to be published in newspapers and printed in broadsides, to be sent by couriers on horseback to all the colonies, to be posted and read aloud to militias and to the people in hundreds of assemblies, pulpits, public houses and town squares.

"It literally brought the people together to become Americans," Fliegelman said. "It created the bond it described. This document is inventing the concept of Americans. Remember, they were not Americans yet. The document makes them so by saying it, by bringing people together and experiencing it. They become Americans by listening. There is a kind of conversion experience."

Contrary to popular belief, most historians say, the Declaration apparently was not signed on July 4, 1776, by the delegates of the 13 colonies gathered at what later became Independence Hall. After its approval -- the vote was 12-0, with New York abstaining -- only John Hancock and Charles Thomson, president and secretary of the Congress respectively, signed the draft document, which was later lost.

That document, incorporating delegate changes and Jefferson's own markings to show where he would pause for rhetorical effect if called upon to read it aloud, was taken that day to the congressional printer, John Dunlap, with orders to make up broadsides, documents printed on one side of a sheet of heavy paper, usually 18 to 20 inches high by 15 or 16 inches wide and suitable for posting on walls or carried, rolled up, to distant places.

Dunlap's staff worked late into the night setting the metal type by hand, drawing characters from fonts and placing them, letter by letter, line by line, into a frame. Some s's looked like lower-case f's, following the style of the era.

When the typesetters were done, a proof copy was made. Dunlap took one look and saw that a mistake had been made, Fliegelman said.

The typesetters had erroneously included Jefferson's mysterious phrasing marks in the text. It is unclear now what those marks looked like, for the draft copy that went to Dunlap was lost, but the printers represented them as quotation marks. That much is known because the upper half of what is believed to be that one and only proof copy resides today in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

To correct the mistake before printing of the broadsides was begun, Dunlap ordered the quotation marks pulled out of the type. Although that was done, the typesetters in many instances merely substituted blank spaces for the quotation marks, apparently to avoid the necessity of reconfiguring entire lines of type. Thus, inadvertently, Jefferson's original phrasing ideas were preserved as blank spaces that are apparent on all the surviving broadsides.

On July 5, about 200 of the broadsides were printed on heavy, fibrous paper. They were swiftly dispatched by riders throughout the colonies to be posted or read to militias and civilian assemblies. On July 9 George Washington ordered them read to Continental Army brigades in New York. By August they were being read in distant Georgia.

The broadsides were regarded as utilitarian, not historic documents to be saved for posterity. Many were torn down or burned by the British. Others were simply thrown away, especially as the text of the Declaration, widely published by newspapers and reprinted by provincial councils, became commonplace.

Nevertheless some copies were saved in statehouses, and others were held privately. Today 25 copies are known to exist, 24 of them in institutions.

It was not until July 19, 1776, that the Second Continental Congress got around to ordering a hand-written copy of the Declaration on parchment, one that the delegates could sign for the record. By then New York had approved the document, which, in contrast to Jefferson's rough draft, could be titled "The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America."

The assignment to make a fancy, so-called engrossed copy -- the one that resides in the National Archives in Washington -- is believed to have been carried out by Timothy Matlack, an assistant to Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Congress.

The script was typical of many colonial-era formal documents, nice to look at but far less legible than the printed broadsides. Flourishes adorned the capitals, some words and phrases were whimsically larger than others, long dashes for the most part were used instead of paragraphs, and there were other adornments and idiosyncrasies of penmanship.

The Declaration was formally signed on Aug. 2 by 50 members of the Congress. But some who signed were not present when the document was approved July 4, and some who approved it then were not available or had been replaced by Aug. 2. Complicating matters, six signatures were added in succeeding months.

(John Trumbull's famous painting The Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the Capitol in Washington, depicts faces of some men who were not signers and left out some who were. It was completed in 1818 -- 42 years after the signing.)

Given the reverence most Americans accord the Declaration, the story of what happened to it is strange, full of abuse, carelessness and neglect. Rolled up, as were most parchments, it was shifted from one hiding place to another during the Revolutionary War and later was kept in New York and Philadelphia until settling in Washington, the new capital, in 1800.

In 1952 it was transferred to the National Archives and has since been displayed in an airtight container.

Starting this afternoon the Declaration will be removed from public display in the National Archives' rotunda for two years. There are no plans for restoration of the document, but the latest preservation technologies will be installed.

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