The Declaration of Independence gets passed around like a bowling trophy, with predictable results.
This story published April 1, 2002
"When in the course of human events" starts the Declaration of Independence, the document that started America's Revolutionary War in the late eighteenth century. It's attributed to the steady pen of statesman Thomas Jefferson, and provides what might well be the cornerstone of the definition of what it means to be American. (We'll kindly leave out the other, seedier hallmarks, like fanatical gun ownership, interventionist foreign policy and widespread obesity.) Curiously, Jefferson himself seems to have been rather silent while occupying the very public position of a birthing country's delivery nurse, or at least its diaper-changer. Indeed, fellow patriot John Adams griped that "during the whole Time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together." Rather than working on his flowery language, Jefferson himself spent most of his time making weird things like self-opening windows and puttering around his estate. In the eight years he spent as President, he bought some 20,000 bottles of wine from Europe and was a very public drunk. Given the rumors of his plagiarism and his affinity for weird contraptions and the vine, is it reasonable to think that Jefferson was even capable of writing such a grand work as the Declaration of Independence?
Certainly. He just didn't write the one that you've read.
The original Declaration was a horrifically embarrassing document. Issued forth on July 4th, 1776, it was hailed by the nationbuilders as the product of privileged white guy genius. As a document redressing the litany of grievances the Colonists had against their paternal empire, it provided a unique window on the sorts of things that ticked the colonists off, only they weren't quite the things you heard about in elementary school. Here's a few of them, taken from the original Declaration. They derided King George
For stopping the processing of hemp.
This wasn't the first time Jefferson had let the piss and vinegar fly. Considering that John Adams hired rumormongers to dig up adultery dirt on his political opponents and Benjamin Franklin wrote a treatise entitled "Fart Proudly", is it really surprising that our Founding Fathers were capable of such potty humor? When he wrote the Declaration, Jefferson was thirty-three years old, the same age John Belushi and Chris Farley were when they died under rock-star conditions. You won't find it touted much in history books, but it's true: Jefferson and his ilk were the eighteenth century's answer to that most American of archetypes, the stunted adolescent.
Meanwhile, real adolescents were out dying in the war, not least of all because of Britain's superior naval power. As such, Congress had a feeling that it might have to deal with maritime operations. In 1775, it had commissioned thirteen naval ships of war, at the urgings of delegate George Wythe, who noted sagely that the Romans had a navy, and that they'd beaten Carthage. A bunch of money was spent and ships built, unfortunately; the entire American navy was captured, destroyed, sunk or burnt by the British within four years. The British devised all manner of cunning tactics in their operations - unleashing tarts on the sailors at inappropriate times, the martial use of light opera, and so on. Without some plan, the American coastline was doomed. In what might be a singularly unique event in Western history, a winning martial strategy was devised - by the French.
The Marquis de Lafayette, a wealthy and adventurous fop, chartered his own ship to come to the United States after the fledgling country's naval debacle. Deciding to take Wythe literally, the Marquis got to wondering what made Carthage powerful in the first place. He concluded it was Hannibal and the elephants. This flash of inspiration spurred the Marquis to equip a squadron of elephants with bombs and train them swim through seawater. These animals (dramatically dubbed "The Elephantine Colossi") were to delicately tread water across the narrow bays of New England, trunks held aloft, in search of British war vessels. Without delay, animals were obtained, trained, and ferried across the Atlantic. With such a formidable enemy, the British fleet was doomed from the moment it left port. Recent work has shown that the success of the plan was not so much due to the brilliance of French animal trainers, but more to the fact that the Marquis contracted agents on the English coast to stow away sacks of peanuts on the presumptive targets. With the whiff of peanuts in the air across Chesapeake Bay and a squadron of hungry, explosive elephants on shore, the British never had a chance. Indeed, this naval tactic would continue to make mincemeat out of limey boats until well into the nineteenth century, at which point British naval engineers had perfected the art of training mice to swim.
Fortunately for the Declaration and adolescents on one side of the pond, British general Cornwallis surrendered in October of 1781, having been abandoned by his mortally embarrassed navy . Communications being what they were, it was two more years before the gang got around to signing a peace treaty in Paris. Washington knew that his retirement as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army was imminent. He also knew that with this retirement, the absurdly lucrative deal he had with the government would be gone . Ergo, he did what any other man of his time would have done: he bought booze.
The tight grip alcohol had on early America and eighteenth-century Europe cannot be overemphasized. John Rutledge, the first governor of South Carolina and one of the signers of the Declaration, felt it not only appropriate but his duty to down at least two quart bottles of Madeira wine when he had company over (otherwise he'd deal with only one). The guy with the biggest name on the Declaration, John Hancock, was busted for smuggling Madeira into the colonies in 1768, and lost not only the shipment, but his boat and bail money besides. Given that liquor was such an important part of everyone's life, should we wonder why they revolted against the government that prevented them from getting it? And even less so that they threw the country's biggest kegger once everything was over?
It all started at the Indian Queen Tavern in Philadelphia. Washington showed up for the bender with cases and cases of absinthe, and a bit of French wine too. The Declaration was held aloft by one of Washington's cronies, replete with the forty signatures, and everyone raucously cheered. Wine flowed. Men roared with glee. Barwenches plied their trade. About the city of Philadelphia, various wings of the Continental army ditched their wives [they'd been home eighteen months now] and arrived to raise glasses to the new nation.
At the Indian Queen, the Declaration got passed around. Flecks of wine made their way to its edges; fervent touching and object worship left it pockmarked and dog-eared. And then Cesar Rodney got his hands on it. Rodney, from Delaware, had been dying of cancer throughout the war and was dragged by his heels to the signing. Now, seven years later, he was hanging on by a thread. He was stinking drunk. And, while everyone was celebrating, Rodney took the hand of a youngish woman known to history only as Ludmilla, and quietly vanished.
The party raged on. Member of the Massachusetts militia began to burn furniture outside and set the city alight. Gentleman landowners from Maryland, engaging in target practice with the ropes that held the Liberty Bell, shot the thing from its roost in Independence Hall and sent it crashing down through the tower, lodging five feet below street level and severely cracking the bell proper.
The next morning found Rodney lying, face permanently frozen in an inappropriate grin, next to a German whore. No explanation was forthcoming from the girl, who spoke no English. Inspection revealed that he had taken the semi-sacred parchment with him. Closer inspection revealed that a night of sweaty fumbling had smeared the document's text beyond all recognition. The words were illegible; the signatures obliterated. Closer inspection still showed that the back of the German girl had been daubed in ink; the Framers, no slouches in detective work, deduced that Rodney had taken her with him to a quiet room in the Indian Queen and she ended up on the Declaration while he struggled in the throes of passion, or death, or both. Mysterious writing on her back was deciphered by the always clever Franklin, who held the girl up to a mirror and chuckled (as only a dirty old man can) when he read "the pursuit if happiness" on her back.
The Framers were in trouble. They realized that one copy of the document announcing the birth of their nation had just been destroyed. There were only two other copies in town: one had been burned in a bar fire, and the other received the business end of a sergeant in the Connecticut Line's stomach contents. The only other extant copy was in the hands of King George III, across the pond. By the dawn's early light, a post-party Washington sat with his head in his shaking hands; Adams nursed a massive hangover. The two men discussed the situation and sent word to Jefferson, who had been cooling his heels in his palatial home in Virginia.
This palatial home was the house that hadn't gotten pillaged during the war. The other one got looted by Benedict Arnold and a bunch of British troops in 1781. They ransacked it, burned his furniture and liberated his chickens. It was not uncommon for the British to drink too much tea before combat; firsthand accounts of the battle are singularly distinctive in their effusive descriptions of the event's rank odor. It is reported that asparagus was in season.
Jefferson himself escaped at the last minute with a few of his slaves. He had been frantically running around the house, trying to rescue what he thought might be most important. One of his slaves grabbed the original notes from the Declaration, the ones rife with statements about booze taxes and buxom wenches. Good thing, too, because when the Founders came a-knocking with requests for another copy of the Declaration, he could refer to them and sing praise to this nation's noble foundations of intermarrying and intoxicating spirits.
However, in the time that had passed since the notes had been saved, a member of Jefferson's household had been paying special attention to them and other bits of his writing. Turns out Jefferson had some choice things to say about folks of color:
But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch... Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species...
This didn't sit well with some of his slaves, who had taught themselves to read. In particular, it ticked off Sally Hemings. Sally not only had Tom's ear, she had his Declaration notes. Fortunately for America's future, Sally had a few ideas of her own. And so she made a few changes to his notes. Nothing drastic, but certain phrases were clipped. Others made more mellifluous. Yet others removed entirely. The Declaration was brought to the forty signers, signed again, and again placed in capable hands. Sort of.
The newly independent nation couldn't stop partying, and such partying was hazardous to our sacred document. Things started to go downhill. For six years. In that time, the Declaration was destroyed no less than eleven times. Not unlike the Stanley Cup after the NHL finals, the document went home with each signer to his respective spit of land. Staid landowners, eccentric inventors and positively tight-assed aristocrats had been made rock stars overnight. Each one took it straightaway to the nearest tavern to hold the paper aloft to drunken cheers. And, more often than not, it was subsequently damaged. Copies were torn, immersed in tankards of beer, wiped on drunken noses, vomited on, used to staunch the flow of blood from a duel, trod upon by boots, devoured by a rabid dog, used as kindling, and, in a particularly interesting confluence of fates, used as a diaper for the infant George Custer. In one memorable episode, Button Gwinnett rolled it up into the world's biggest revolutionary joint.
So every time the Declaration was puked on, every time it mopped the brow of a sweaty, shanghaied stable boy, every time it served the purpose of a curtain for a public penis puppet show from 1783 to 1789, Sally was called to bring out the old notes. And every time she made them a bit more ennobling and a bit less seedy. While most other politicians were still in a drunken haze from the lengthy party, the Declaration's prominence in the minds and hearts of regular Americans swelled. By 1789 somebody got the brilliant idea of copying it more than once, and Sally wasn't able to change things any more. But the damage had been done: by then, it read as it does today, a nearly perfect document.
Enter the library of Congress. In 1814 the thing burned to the ground [all 740 books!] at the hands of bored British troops, who seemed to not quite be able to get over the notion that they'd just lost the biggest landmass in history. Jefferson magnanimously offered to sell his library off, at the outrageous price of $10 per volume [he'd accumulated an astonishing amount of gambling debt], and Congress thought it over. Indeed, they almost didn't buy it. It was full of odd things like Russian statistics and Turkish smut. Library historian William Brassey noted
The critics objected to "the cost of the purchase, the nature of the selection, embracing too many works in foreign languages, some of too philosophical character, and some otherwise objectionable." Note was taken of "books of an atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency."
Congress voted yes anyway, and Florence Whittaker, first Librarian of Congress, was sent to Jefferson to close the deal. He was in Paris at the time, and she decided to swing by London to check out the scene, where at librarian's wine party, she came upon a very curious document: the original Declaration of Independence. In America, the document had taken on mythic status; as Librarian of Congress she had pored over it many times and thrilled to its beautiful language. But this document before her, slathered with lewd signatures of the Framers, made gross references to overalls and tits. It seems as though everyone involved in the whole sordid affair had forgotten one crucial fact: while all the fouler copies of the first Declaration in America had been destroyed and rewritten, there was still the original one the Continental Congress had sent King George!
These revelations came at a precious time for the new Republic. The war of 1812, as it would be later called, was going quite well. The US was set for a sure-to-be-successful invasion of Canada and its rich furs, while Andrew Jackson seemd close to destroying the British army in New Orleans. America was close to extracting major concessions from the British. When the Brits caught wind of the Declaration Discrepancy, the Americans were forced to hastily add a clause to the Treaty of Ghent. Article XIII, not usually printed in history books, notes that
Whereas the future cultural independence of Canadia is of ultimate importance to the World, and it is generally agreed that God has a Special Design for the Province, the United States shall immediately cast its covetous eye elsewhere. In return, His Brittannic Majesty shall return the Declaration of Independence to the United States, and both parties will never speak of it again. Ever.
|©1996-2007 History House Inc.
All Rights Reserved.