Jefferson was in France during the Constitutional Convention, but the Declaration of Independence is possibly the most hopeful and eloquent statement of the Founding Principles. On June 11, 1776, the second Continental Congress appointed a committee to write a declaration of independence. Besides Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman were selected. One of these five was a renowned author. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac and his newspaper articles in the Pennsylvania Gazette had made him the best-known writer in North America. But Franklin declined to draft the declaration, supposedly due to poor health, so the committee asked the thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson to draft the document.
In less than three weeks, Jefferson completed this historic document and presented it to the rest of the committee. The committee mostly accepted the document as written, except that Franklin made some subtle but important revisions. For example, Jefferson had written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” which Franklin revised to “self-evident.” Some have suggested that Franklin was pushing the text toward the analytic empiricism of David Hume, but it’s more likely that the master editor was wordsmithing for a more graceful rhythm to the words.
Jefferson reported that afterward, Franklin told him that he avoided drafting papers that would be reviewed by a public body. You can almost hear the seventy-year-old patriarch chuckling as he gave this advice to the young Virginian. According to Jefferson, Franklin told him the following story.
An apprentice hatter was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” with a figure of a hat subjoined. He then submitted it to friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word “Hatter” repetitive, because it was followed by the words “makes hats.” It was struck out. The next observed that the word “makes” might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words “for ready money” were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. The inscription now stood, “John Thompson sells hats.” “Sells hats!” says the next friend. “Why, nobody expects you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?” It was stricken out, and “hats” followed it, as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced to “John Thompson” with the figure of a hat subjoined.