Hyperspectral imaging reveals change made in original Declaration of Independence draft

Recent hyperspectral imaging of Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the USA’s Declaration of Independence has clearly confirmed past speculation that Jefferson made an interesting word correction during his writing of the document, according to scientists in the Library of Congress’ Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD).

Jefferson originally had written the phrase “our fellow subjects”. But he apparently changed his mind. Heavily scrawled over the word “subjects” was an alternative, the word “citizens”. The correction seems to illuminate an important moment for Jefferson and for a nation on the eve of breaking from monarchical rule: a moment when he reconsidered his choice of words and articulated the recognition that the people of the fledgling United States of America were no longer subjects of any nation, but citizens of an emerging democracy.

The correction occurs in the portion of the declaration that deals with US grievances against King George III, in particular, his incitement of “treasonable insurrections”. While the specific sentence doesn’t make it into the final draft, a similar phrase was retained, and the word “citizens” is used elsewhere in the final document. The sentence didn’t carry over, but the idea did.

Hyperspectral imaging reveals the correction

Fenella France, a scientist in PRTD, conducted the hyperspectral imaging in the fall of 2009 and discovered a blurred word under “citizens.” France said, “It had been a spine-tingling moment when I was processing data late at night and realised there was a word underneath citizens. Then I began the tough process of extracting the differences between spectrally similar materials to elucidate the lost text.”

The Thomas Jefferson word correction has been suspected for some time by scholars. In The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1: 1760–1776 (Princeton University Press, 1950), Julian P. Boyd wrote “TJ originally wrote ‘fellow-subjects,’ copying the term from the corresponding passage in the first page of the First Draft of the Virginia Constitution; then, while the ink was still wet on the ‘Rough draught’ he expunged or erased ‘subjects’ and wrote ‘citizens’ over it.”

The rough draft of the Declaration of Independence can be explored in detail in the online version of the exhibition “Creating the United States” at myLOC.gov (and on-site at the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building).
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