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Burden of Proof

Remembering the Declaration of Independence

Aired July 4, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET



ANNOUNCER: Just two days ago on the 2nd of July, the Congress, sitting in Philadelphia, finally approved Mr. Jefferson's declaration. And today, on the 4th of July, gentlemen are affixing their signature to that document, making us independent of King George and his parliament.




WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This should really be required reading about once a week, I think, if there was a way to do it.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's our history, it's what we have. Our forefathers have earned for us this day to remember where we come from.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on a special edition of BURDEN OF PROOF, the legal document that liberated a nation and changed the course of American history, the Declaration of Independence.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. His name was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. But his contributions to our nation predate his presidential inauguration by a quarter century. In 1776 at the age of 33, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Ironically, July 4th also marks the anniversary of Jefferson's death in 1826. Today, on the brink of a new century, the words composed by Jefferson are celebrated as an American creed, but at the time it was considered an act of treason.

The life and legacy of Jefferson are depicted in a book titled "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson."

COSSACK: The author of "American Sphinx," Joseph Ellis, joins us today from Springfield, Massachusetts. And joining us from Charlottesville, Virginia is law professor A.E. Dick Howard.

VAN SUSTEREN: And here in our studio, Bret Burrell (ph), Gerard Gowalt of the Library of Congress, and Dan Baugh (ph). And in our back row, Tracy Strickland (ph) and Christina Enstrom (ph).

Let me go first to you, Joe: Was it an act of treason?

JOSEPH ELLIS, AUTHOR, "AMERICAN SPHINX": Well, it was an act of treason if the Americans lost the American Revolutionary War, and all of the people who signed the Declaration realized that they could have very well been signing their own death warrants if in fact the British army defeated the Continental Army. And one of them said as they were signing, you're lucky, because you're very heavy, and when they catch you and hang you, you will die quickly, but I'm very light and will twist in the wind for several minutes before I die.

So they were very conscious of the fact that what they were doing was on the one hand treasonable, on the other hand, the act of American independence.

COSSACK: Dick Howard, why was it necessary to have this document at all? We were going to have the Constitution. Why was it necessary to even have this Declaration of Independence?

A.E. DICK HOWARD, LAW PROFESSOR: The Declaration of Independence was in effect a milestone along the road from being colonies to being an independent country. To draft a Constitution required that first the framers, the founding generation, put into writing their understanding of what it meant to constitute a nation. The Declaration really does two things: It's interesting that it is in effect two documents in one. Most of it is kind of a what you would say a bill of particulars, an indictment against King George III for violating a number of the traditional rights of the colonists, based in British constitutionalism: things like colonial assemblies, suspending laws, quartering troops, that sort of thing.

But as a predicate to that, the preamble to the document is really rather different in kind. What Jefferson and his colleagues agreed to was a statement of principle, understanding that rights are pre-existing documents, like a Constitution, that they are inherent and inalienable in the human condition. And I think in that part of the document Jefferson and the framers are really not simply mounting a legal case against British policy, but they are appealing to the common understanding of humankind about what it really means to be a free people.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, then speaking of that, Gerry (ph), let me go to you: the concept of free people and that the Declaration of Independence is a statement of principles. Then how come, including Thomas Jefferson, that they were slave owners?

GERARD GOWALT, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS: Well, they were slave owners because they largely inherited their slaves. They spoke of all men being free in a general sense, in the enlightenment sense of men. That included men, women, children, black, white, Native Americans.

VAN SUSTEREN: But not slaves.

GOWALT: But it included people who then had roles within that larger circumference of all men, and people had roles that were defined by their own particular civilization. And in the United States, the role of African-Americans, or black people, was that of slaves. The role of women was different than that of the role of men, particularly in political life.

But I think it's important, also, to remember that the Declaration of Independence was really a document that was meant to rally support for the revolution and to rally support overseas. And to remember when the Declaration of Independence was written, the outcome of the war was very much in doubt. Even in the summer of 1776, an American army was in retreat from Canada, the British army and fleet were landing in New York just as the Americans voted for independence on July 2nd. Native Americans along the southern frontier had almost unanimously all arisen against the Americans.

And therefore, it's more than just a document of principles, a document of rights. It's a war document.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, it's a war document, but Joe, July 4th is the date that we celebrate. But July 4th isn't the date that they signed it.

ELLIS: No. Everybody thinks that July 4th is the day they signed it. Most of the people who signed the Declaration signed it on August 2nd, although people were coming and going in the Continental Congress, and there were people signing it on into October and November.

July 2nd is the date that John Adams thought they should regard as the anniversary, because that's the day the Continental Congress actually took a vote on whether the colonies should be independent. They then debated the wording of the Declaration on July 3rd, and on July 4th, what they did was send that revised document to the printer. So July 4th is the first day that the American people and the public know what's in the document.

COSSACK: Dick, there was a conflict even -- even within the Declaration of Independence and the way it was written as to this slavery. Slavery was a major issue and compromises were necessary, weren't they?

HOWARD: I think that's right. My understand is that Jefferson in an earlier version as he was working on the document actually included among the complaints against George III and British policy the fact that the king had imposed slavery and the slave trade upon the American colonies, but that was very contentious as an item. And Georgia and South Carolina in particular objected to the inclusion of that language in the Declaration. So in order to achieve unanimity on the language of the Declaration, that language was struck out.

But I'm bound to think that the framers, or at least most of them, understood that the principle of equality that they were laying down in the explicit language of the Declaration was at loggerheads, was in conflict with the fact of slavery in the American colonies.

VAN SUSTEREN: We're going to take a break. Up next, how Thomas Jefferson, a young radical Whig, was chosen to author the Declaration of Independence. Stay with us.


COSSACK: Good news for our Internet savvy viewers. You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log on to We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via "Video on Demand." You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.


CLINTON: ... because this country is not about race. It is about the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and what we believe in. That is what it is about.


VAN SUSTEREN: In the summer of 1775, 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia as the youngest member of Virginia's delegation to the Continental Congress. A year later, he would lead a band of revolutionaries by writing the Declaration of Independence.

Joe, in your book, "American Sphinx," you describe Thomas Jefferson -- and let me give a very modern term -- as thin-skinned. He didn't like criticism. What was his reaction to the debate over the wording he provided in the Declaration of Independence?

ELLIS: Well, he's certainly thin-skinned about his own writing. He takes his own words seriously. And he is, of course, one of the great prose stylists in American history. But on the 3rd and 4th of July, when the Continental Congress was debating his draft of the declaration, they changed -- mostly excised -- about 25 percent of what he had written. There had been a few changes made by the committee before that. They changed -- he had said, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." And probably Franklin changed that to "self- evident." But during the debate, Franklin went over to sit next to Jefferson and watched as Jefferson was squirming in his chair, and said to him that this was one of the reasons he had not drafted the declaration. He had made it a point never to draft a document that would be edited by a committee.

And secondly, he told him a story about a hatter who had commissioned a sign painter, who filled up the sign with all these words. And they kept editing it and revising it, and eventually, the sign was just the picture of a hat. Something like that was happening to Jefferson's draft. And Jefferson talked about how they had mangled his draft. And he went to his grave, 50 years later, still thinking that his original version was a superior version.

COSSACK: Dick, why Jefferson to draft this? I mean, why was he one? There was John Adams available to do it at that time. There were other great leaders of the revolution. Why Jefferson?

HOWARD: Well, they certainly were a generation of leaders not without individual talent. I suspect any number of the people present could have sat down and knocked out some kind of serviceable draft. I mean, John Adams, for example, was the principal architect of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. He was, in effect, given the job by a small committee there. So the talent was certainly there.

I think they somehow recognized in this young Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, the talent of the wordsmith -- as Joe has pointed out -- that he certainly had a way with words. And, under the heat of the moment in July of 1776, they were bound to want to put into classic and direct and very effective prose, ideas which not only -- they didn't really imagine that King George or the parliament would suddenly read this document and say: Wow, we really have been mistreating these Americans -- they really wanted to speak over the heads of those people, to, in effect, worldwide opinion -- or, at least, among civilized Atlantic nations.

And I think one of the secrets of Jefferson's prose, especially in the preamble to the declaration, is that he didn't have to invent all those ideas. In a few well chosen words, he is able to draw upon the mainstream understanding of Enlightenment thought: things like consent of the governed, inalienable rights. There's a little bit of 17th century Wig levelers in there. There's a little bit of 18th century Enlightenment thought. There's John Locke in there. He doesn't bog down in any of that. Most of us would, but Jefferson did not.

VAN SUSTEREN: Gerry, you know, there is a lot that we do know about Thomas Jefferson, but the three of you have scholars dig in far deeper than the rest of us. What sort of -- what is intriguing to you about Thomas Jefferson?

GOWALT: Well, what's really interesting is the breadth of his interest in a lot of different subjects, not just in principled matters of the Enlightenment, but also his interest in science, his interest in religion, his interest in just the whole theory of government, and also in the practical matters as to how things were actually going to work.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did you think it was that -- why do you think sort of the driving interest in freedom of religion?

GOWALT: He was very interested in freedom of religion, because it was a contentious issue in Virginia, because of the establishment of the Episcopal church in Virginia. And he was much opposed to a state establishment of any church. But it was a very -- it was the "in" subject of the time, of the Enlightenment, the whole concept of religion and freedom of religion. And Jefferson early came to a view that religious freedom was very important for people. And it is a principle that he adhered to throughout his life.

COSSACK: Joe, was there any -- was the part that Jefferson was a Southerner, did that play any role in the decision to choose him to write this document?

ELLIS: The fact that he was a Virginian was very important. Massachusetts was being invaded by the British army, or occupied by the British army, and John Adams recognized that, in order for the American Revolution to succeed, Virginia, the largest colony and the other most important colony, needed to be brought in line. And it was Adams who originally nominated George Washington to be head of the Continental Army, and then urged that Jefferson be the person to draft the declaration.

He said that there were two reasons he asked Jefferson. One was because he himself, Adams, had made himself obnoxious to the other members of Congress by arguing quite vociferously for American independence before it was fashionable; and secondly said because Jefferson could write a million times better than he could.

GOWALT: There's also an interesting story that Jefferson may not have even have gotten a chance to write the Declaration of Independence, because he very much wanted to go back to Virginia to help write the Virginia Constitution, of which he drafted three copies before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. But Richard Henry Lee, who was the senior member of the Virginia delegation, also wanted to go back to Williamsburg to help write the Virginia Constitution.

And Lee had introduced the Resolution for Independence on June 7th. And so Lee would have been the natural person from Virginia to put on that committee. But because Lee wanted to go back to Virginia, and he was a senior member, Jefferson stayed in Philadelphia, and therefore was put on the committee. So it is really almost an accident of history, a very fortuitous accident of history.

COSSACK: An accident of fate if you will. Let's take a break.

When we come back, the price of liberty: the little known stories of men who risked it all and signed the Declaration of Independence. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COSSACK: They were lawyers, farmers, merchants, and plantation owners: The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were men of means and education. Their act of British treason risked the loss of life and livelihood.

Well, Dick, many of these brave men who signed the Constitution -- the Declaration of Independence did not fare well during the war, did they? What happened to many of them?

HOWARD: Well, I think one thing that happened was many of them lost a great deal of property. Sometimes they were in the path of the invading armies or the battles. Others staked their fortunes, made loans that put their fortunes into the -- into the colonial -- into the continental cause itself and that money was not forthcoming.

I think this was a generation of people who realized how high the stakes were, and they obviously were willing to bet everything they had on it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joe, the big winners, of course, are us. I mean, we have been the ones who have done so well as a result of this document and subsequent important constitutional documents. But going back to the time, who were the big winners who signed onto the Declaration of Independence?

I mean of the individual signers.

ELLIS: Well, I mean, the individual signers, I think that you, in terms of Jefferson and Adams most especially, these are people that now have major monuments to them. They are regarded as mythical, iconographic figures. They were present at the creation.

And the all had a sense, a keen sense that they were present at the creation. And this -- this was -- they were improvising on the edge of catastrophe here in 1776. But if things went their way and if the revolution were won and if this new nation called the United States were to be established, they knew that they would be the equivalent of the original Christian saints: sort of canonized American figures.

And that's the reason they're on Mount Rushmore. That's the reason they're on the Mall. They had a keen sense that this was their ticket to immortality.

COSSACK: Gerry, what happened now in terms of the reception of the American people to the Declaration of Independence? Now, we've discussed it: They meet on the 2nd and the 4th of July and into August, and they sign this document, which says, King George, we're now independent.

How did the population react to this?

GOWALT: Well, the population that was supporting the war was very enthusiastic. The Declaration of Independence was distributed beginning July 5th. It first appeared in the newspaper July 6th. An example of the reaction was that there was a celebration in Philadelphia when the Declaration was written by Colonel John -- was read by Colonel John Nixon. When Washington has the Declaration of Independence read to the troops in New York, they did as a lot of military people did: They had a party, they drank a lot. They went down to the bowling green; they tore down the statue of George III, which was ultimately melted into lead bullets.

It was enthusiastically received by those people who were in favor of the revolution, and it nailed in place supporters of the revolution: not only the 56 people who signed it, but people who were acquainted with them, who were responsible for their being there, those people in the Army. But of course, the loyalists, who were opposed to the war, had a different reception.

VAN SUSTEREN: And let me interrupt you right there because we are running out of time. But what a source of inspiration then and now. But that's all the time we have for today.

Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

COSSACK: Join us again next time for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



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