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Benjamin Franklin Joins the Revolution

Returning to Philadelphia from England in 1775, the "wisest American" kept his political leanings to himself. But not for long

The honor of drafting the document fell to Jefferson, then 33, who was the committee’s chairman, because he had gotten the most votes from its members and he was from Virginia, the colony that had proposed the resolution. For his part, Adams mistakenly thought he had already secured his place in history by writing the preamble to an earlier resolution that called for the dismantling of royal authority in the colonies, which he wrongly proclaimed would be regarded by historians as “the most important resolution that ever was taken in America.” As for Franklin, he was laid up in bed with boils and gout when the committee first met. Besides, he later told Jefferson, “I have made it a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.”

And thus it was that Jefferson had the glory of composing, on a little lap desk he had designed, some of the most famous phrases in American history while sitting alone in a second- floor room on Market Street a block from Franklin’s home: “When in the course of human events . . . ”

The document contained a bill of particulars against the British, and it recounted, as Franklin had often done, America’s attempts to be conciliatory despite England’s repeated intransigence. Jefferson’s writing style, however, was different from Franklin’s. It was graced with rolling cadences and mellifluous phrases, soaring in their poetry and powerful despite their polish. In addition, Jefferson drew on a depth of philosophy not found in Franklin. He echoed both the language and grand theories of English and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, most notably the concept of natural rights propounded by John Locke, whose Second Treatise on Government he had read at least three times. And he built his case, in a manner more sophisticated than Franklin would have, on a contract between government and the governed that was based on the consent of the people.

When he had finished a draft and incorporated some changes from Adams, Jefferson sent it to Franklin on the morning of Friday, June 21. “Will Doctor Franklin be so good as to peruse it,” he wrote in his cover note, “and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?”

Franklin made only a few changes, the most resounding of which was small. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The idea of “self-evident” truths drew less on John Locke, Jefferson’s favorite philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was one of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

On July 2, the Continental Congress finally took the consequential step of voting for independence. As soon as the vote was completed (there were 12 yeas and one nay), the Congress formed itself into a committee of the whole to consider Jefferson’s draft declaration. They were not so light in their editing as Franklin had been. Large sections were eviscerated. Jefferson was distraught. “I was sitting by Dr. Franklin,” he recalled, “who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations.” At the official signing of the parchment copy on August 2, John Hancock, the president of the Congress, penned his name with flourish. “There must be no pulling different ways,” he declared. “We must all hang together.” According to the historian Jared Sparks, Franklin replied: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Having declared the collective colonies a new nation, the Second Continental Congress now needed to create a new system of government. So it began work on what would become the Articles of Confederation. The document was not completed until late 1777, and it would take another four years before all 13 colonies ratified it, but the basic principles were decided during the weeks following the acceptance of the Declaration of Independence.

By July 1776, Adm. Richard Howe was commander of all British forces in America, with his brother, Gen. William Howe, in charge of the ground troops. He had gotten his wish of being commissioned to negotiate a reconciliation. He carried a detailed proposal that offered a truce, pardons for the rebel leaders (with John Adams secretly exempted) and rewards for any American who helped restore peace.

Because the British did not recognize the Continental Congress as a legitimate body, Lord Howe was unsure where to direct his proposals. So when he reached Sandy Hook, New Jersey, he sent a letter to Franklin, whom he addressed as “my worthy friend.” He had “hopes of being serviceable,” Howe declared, “in promoting the establishment of lasting peace and union with the colonies.”

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