|"We hold these truths to be self-evident..."||
Thomas Jefferson considered the Declaration of Independence his greatest achievement. It marked the beginning of self-government in America, kindling a flame that he believed would eventually light the world. But the Declaration was a personal achievement for Jefferson as well, a masterpiece of eloquence that still inspires us today.|
Near the end of his life, Jefferson explained his goal in writing the Declaration of Independence:
Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent... Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular or previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
It is the "tone and spirit" of Jefferson's writing that make the Declaration of Independence something more than a statement of political principles. To see this, compare Jefferson's words to those of another Virginian, George Mason, whose "Declaration of Rights" was adopted by the Virginia assembly on June 12, 1776, while Jefferson was still working on his first draft.
The ideas in the two passages are almost identical, and may even be more clearly explained by George Mason. But in Jefferson's hands these ideas become charged with the "tone and spirit" of conviction. Instead of setting down political facts, he affirms eternal truths about humanity. Instead of spelling things out, he makes us feel that more remains to be said.
Jefferson's draft of the Declaration shows that he worked hard to give this passage its distinctive style. Mark the changes he made on the transcript shown below, then compare Jefferson's draft with the passage by George Mason and with his own final choice of words.
Thomas Jefferson Draft of the Declaration of Independence We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable; that among these are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;