Saturday, July 09, 2011

I hold this Truth ...

... to be self-evident: that every writer's work, howsoever great be the natural powers with which his Creator has endowed him, can be improved by a good copy editor.

Thomas Jefferson was generous or vain or fair-minded enough to include in his memoirs the Declaration of Independence as he wrote it (right here in Philadelphia, in a house at Seventh and Market Streets), allowing readers to compare Jefferson's words with the changes made by the committee that had charged him with the job.

Here's an example:

Jefferson's original:
"The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears no solitary act to contradict the uniform tenor or the rest, but all have the direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood."
Final version:
"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."
The committee substituted "repeated" for "unremitting," thereby saving readers a bit of breath. It boiled down "among which appears no solitary act to contradict the uniform tenor or the rest, but all have" to "all having." It excised "for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood" and made the last sentence far more vigorous.

So, along with Jefferson, let the world honor Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and, especially, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams for the copy editing that made a momentous document even better.
***
Here's another bit of Jeffersonia that for some reason seems not to be quoted much these days:
"Whereas the preamble [to Virginia's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom] declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the words `Jesus Christ,' so that it should read, `a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;' the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."
***
Here's a Declaration of Independence quiz that appeared this week in the Christian Science Monitor. If you've read this post, you know the answer to the first question.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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22 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Thanks for this. I have lifted the quote from near the end and used it as for a blog post of my own. Giving due credit to DBB, of course.)

July 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, that's right up there with the quotation from James Madison I found a few weeks ago arguing that every area that has allowed immigration has inevitably prospered.

This does not mean that my selective reading and fragmentary knowledge of the Founding Fathers are any more valid that anyone else's. It does, however, mean that one ought to be cautious about uttering and believing broad statements about what the founders intended, about strict constructionism, about this being a Christian country, and so on.

Happily, the founders were fine writers, and their works are readily available.

July 09, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

For a man so heavily influenced by Locke, Hume and Hobbes I'm surprised Jefferson could have fallen for that old chestnut - the self evident truth.

More likely he hadn't fallen for it but he thought that it sounded good and that the punters would go for it.

July 10, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

"Unremitting" is a lot stronger than "repeated."

Never mind. I had very good editors at Severn House, whatever my feelings about the publisher may be otherwise. (And in order for me to say so, you know they were good. Besides, I'm no longer with them, so don't need to lie).

July 10, 2011  
Blogger C.B. James said...

I like that your example illustrates the value of cutting. Avoid needless words and second draft equals first draft minus ten percent are two rules I always try to follow.

Adrian, Isn't it "We hold these truths to be self-evident" which does not mean that they actually are so, rather that we agree they are and will base our argument on that agreement?

July 10, 2011  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

My other favorite bit of Jefferson history that certain political figures and commentators like to forget about is the very existence of the Jeffersonian Bible.

I mean we're talking about a guy who essentially re-wrote the Bible cutting out what he considered to be the supernatural stuff. No miracles, no resurrection, etc.

That would make some folks heads spin I'm sure.

July 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"...it sounded good and that the punters would go for it."

Right you are, I suspect, Adrian. For one thing, Jefferson was no philosopher, even though he was many other things. For another, the eighteenth century was the era of public controversy, when thinkers talked to the public as well as to each other, your man Hume included. For a third, what could have been a more public cause than this one?

July 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., were your editors as good as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams?

"Unremitting" is stronger than "repeated." It's also longer, and it's apparent that the editors valued brevity. This was a hallmark of American political speech, or at least became so later. Think of the asyndeton ("of the people, by the people, for the people") in the final sentence of the Gettysbug Address.

July 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I wonder who originated the nickname Jefferson's Bible. I like the formal title, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," better. It commands more respect, I think.

July 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B., I was so excited that I ran around the newsroom last night telling colleagues about this bit of Revolutionary-era copy editing. Franklin and Adams did just the sort of copy editing that is most necessary and least valued at my newspaper. Reporters and assigning editors will thank a copy editor for catching and correcting a mistake, but not one in my experience has ever thanked a copy editor for making his or writing briefer, more vigorous, and thus better. Whether this is due to vanity or to inattention, I don't know.

Your suggestion that the meaning of "We hold these truths to be self-evident" may not be self-evident is interesting. I don't know eighteenth-century philosophical and rhetorical vocabulary, but I have to believe that if Jefferson and his gang had wanted to say "We accept the propositions as a basis for what is to follow," they would have found a way to do so.

July 10, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I did pretty well on the quiz, but that might be because I just saw the musical 1776.

In the musical, Jefferson's need for an editor is pretty much explained by the fact that he burned for his new wife. Many worthless drafts later, self-editing was pretty easy after John Adams arranged for her to show up unexpectedly. Yeah, it was convincing with Ken Howard as Jefferson and Blythe Danner as his betrothed.

The rest of the editing process was presented as a pretty ruthless alteration of Jefferson's words by the various factions of the Continent.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So bad writing is due to erotic infatuation or political conpiracy? It takes a writer to come up with a theory like that.

July 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes. It makes sense. From the editors of the "Declaration" to Hemingway. The American style.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Unremitting" sounds like surf pounding ths shore. Americans prefer brisker declamation, at least in the speeches that become part of national lore.

Both in Jefferson's memoirs and in the Federalist Papers, I've come across a phrase or two whose cadences remind me of the Gerrysburg Address. I should probably read Garry Wills' book about that speech of Lincoln's.

July 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I wish that that CSM quiz had had more questions about the content and/or historical background, precedence for the DOI rather than questions about where the original is now and what material it was written on, especially in light of the discussion re how many people confuse the DOI with the Constitution.

Re James Madison's noting that "every area that has allowed immigration has inevitably prospered." Of course. We should note, however, he was referring to lawful immigration.

As for "We hold these truths to be self-evident"--from readings on the DOI I think this excerpt from a Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia) entry on Self-evidence sums it up usefully:

"Moral propositions

Moral propositions can also be said to be self-evident. For example, Alexander Hamilton cited the following moral propositions as self-evident in the Federalist No. 37:

The means ought to be proportioned to the end.
Every power ought to be commensurate with its object.
There ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose which is itself incapable of limitation.

A famous claim of the self-evidence of a moral truth is in the United States Declaration of Independence, which states, "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."; philosophically, that proposition is not necessarily self-evident, and the subsequent propositions surely are not. Nevertheless, many would agree that the proposition we ought to treat subjects known to be equal in a certain sense equally in regard to that sense is morally self-evident. Thus, as Thomas Jefferson proposed, one can hold the propositions to be self-evident as the basis for practical, even revolutionary, behaviours."

These "self-evident truths" came from natural law / the Creator, not from the King.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I offer a lengthy quotation from the plain-spoken Mr. Hamilton in my most recent post!

And, just when I was reveling in the exhilaration of going to the source, of reading the bracing practical wisdom of the Founders, I find that Glenn Beck has written a book that interprets the Federalist Papers for today's readers. If there is anything the country needs less, I don't know what it is.

July 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Glenn Beck! That learned mind, that great historian! I can hardly wait...

Alexander Hamilton can always use some light shined on his writings. Never having been president or a famous war hero, he is, unfortunately, not as well known even to readers of American history as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, etc. He's my Pa's favorite Founder.

Seeing you running around the newsroom sharing that bit of 18th c. copy editing reminded me of an amusing re-creation of the copy-editing scene in the HBO miniseries John Adams. Jefferson, sitting in one corner of the room, legs crossed, one foot dangling the only indication of his nervousness, while Adams (portrayed by Peter Rozovsky-lookalike Paul Giamatti) and Franklin go over it, line by line, making delicate suggestions on how it might be bettered. Delicate because Adams had been the one to approach Jefferson to write it in the first place. At one point Jefferson says something along the lines of: "Well, I liked it."

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if that happened in the room that young Jefferson rented at Seventh and Market Streets in Philadelphia at the time (though Market Street might still have been called High Street then). The House was torn down around 1883, and a replica was built in 1975.

I am enjoying my current reading so much that I have thought of ordering one of the Library of America's two "Founding Fathers" collections. The smaller one includes Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and two volumes of debates on the Constitution: http://www.loa.org/foundingA/. The larger one includes those guys plus two volumes of Adams, two of Franklin, one of John Marshall, one of Thomas Paine, and one of writing from the war: http://www.loa.org/foundingfathers. The would make worthy companions for my Library of America Hammett (and Lincoln), I'd say.

July 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The larger set sounds good. But what an outlay of funds. I'd prolly have to go a Founder at time. What a great joy it is to read the writings of people who took pride and pleasure (often) in the craft and thought behind the written word. It's fun to wonder who among them would have taken most to blogging. Any ideas?

And, yes, that scene supposedly takes place in Jefferson's lodgings in Phila. near the State House.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In that case, I have visited the replica of the room in which the scene presumably took place.

Either set offers a considerable savings over the per-volume price, but the smaller set does not include Adams. Maybe I'll buy the smaller set, then some Adams separately.

Hamilton would have been a fine blogger, though a bit of a scold whose posts would probably run long from time to time. Jefferson, who knew lot about lots of things, would have been a fine blogger, too. Interesting to read in his memoirs what he had to say on seeing the French Revolution from close up.

July 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I changed my mind. I like the title Jefferson's Bible better.

July 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

...especially in light of the discussion re how many people confuse the DOI with the Constitution. ...

Elisabeth: Just like some people confuse Chandler and Hammett! Hammett and Chandler: the Declaration of Independence and the Constiturion of crime writers!

July 11, 2012  

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