Making his language bolder

Thomas Jefferson, asked to write the declaration of the United States’ independence for the Continental Congress, sat down with pen and ink and went to work on a draft. The draft has been preserved, allowing a glimpse of Jefferson the writer at work. Penning the memorable words of the declaration, Jefferson did the work of all good writers – the work of editing, of returning to his language, narrowing and sharpening it. Langguth writes:

‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,’ he wrote…Jefferson struck out ‘sacred and undeniable’ and wrote in ‘self-evident’. He continued through his draft, paring words away to make his language bolder. From ‘that all men are created equal and independent’ he dropped ‘and independent’. ‘Rights inherent and inalienable’ became ‘unalienable rights’. His next phrase came straight from his pen and could not be improved. Jefferson struck off those rights as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.


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Currently reading A.J. Langguth’s Revolutionary War history, Patriots. It’s excellent – fast-paced, full of memorable character sketches, and considering the time span it covers, quite clear in laying out the causes and context of the events.

Langguth writes memorably about Colonel William Prescott, one of the heroes of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Prescott was clearly a bold and courageous man. He led the troops that dug in on top of Breed’s Hill (mistakenly called Bunker Hill and so inshrined in our history as such), and though he lost that battle, inflicted terrible losses on the British forces, who outnumbered the Americans more than 2 to 1. Langguth writes that prior to the battle, the British General Gage was examining with a looking glass the American preparations on top of the hill. He noticed a figure on top who seemed to be in command, and handed the glass to his aide to see if he could identify the man. The aide could; it was his brother in law, William Prescott.

“Will he fight?” Gage asked.

“I cannot answer for his men,” the aide responded, “but Prescott will fight you to the gates of hell.”

Prescott believed he could have won the battle that day if he had received the support of other American officers, who had either fled from the scene or refused to rally to his side. One such officer was General Israel Putnam, whose regiment was only about 600 yards away and yet who never joined the battle.

Following Prescott’s retreat, he confronted Putnam. “Why did you not support me, General, with your men?”

Putnam responded, “I could not drive the dogs up.”

Prescott would have none of it. “If you could not drive them up,” he said, “you might have led them up.”