Title Reviewed:
Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence.

Author Reviewed:
Joseph Lewis

Albert L. Kohlmeier


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 43, Issue 2, pp 181-184

Article Type:
Book Review

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Book Reviews

Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence. By Joseph Lewis. (New York, Freethought Press Association, 1947, pp. xix, 315. Illustrations, bibliography, and index. $3.00.)

Archbishop Whately once undertook to establish by strict application of the canons of historical criticism that Bonaparte Napoleon was nothing but some kind of allegorical symbol instead of a real flesh-and-blood person. The Archbishop succeeded in making a very good case albeit Napoleon was still very much alive on the island of St. Helena. Mr. Lewis has undertaken to prove that Tom Paine, not Thomas Jefferson, was the real author of the "Declaration of Independence." He, too, has succeeded in building up a very strong case.

Mr. Lewis has reconstructed the relevant course of events somewhat as follows: Some time after Richard Henry Lee's resolution had been introduced and after a committee had been appointed to draw up a formal declaration, Tom Paine wrote the original draft and submitted it either to John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, members of the committee. Both Adams and Jefferson, fearing that the precious original draft might be lost, made copies of it in their own hands. Jefferson's copy was styled by him the Rough Draft. Jefferson changed the wording of the Rough Draft by striking out and interlining. Later he submitted this amended Rough Draft to the members of the committee who made further changes. This amended draft was then submitted to Congress that made still further changes by striking out and interlining before it was adopted on July 4.

The author submits many opinions and bits of evidence. The reviewer can summarize only a selected few.

  1. The substance and the style of the "Declaration of Independence" and Tom Paine's Common Sense have such striking similarity that they could only have been produced by the same man.
  2. John Adams' copy is replete with capital letters. Tom Paine was in the habit of emphasizing words by the use of capitals. Adams must have copied Paine's original, including the capitals.
  3. Jefferson in his Rough Draft wrote the same phrase twice in succession, then struck out one of them, evidence that the Rough Draft was not an original draft but a copy.
  4. The Rough Draft of the Declaration condemns the institution of slavery and proposes its abolition. When in the Continental Congress, opposition developed to this section, Jefferson made no attempt to defend it, evidence that Jefferson did not really have convictions on this subject and could not have been the real author of that provision.
  5. Activities and writings of Jefferson prior to June, 1776, indicate that the thought of independence was so new to him that his thinking had not yet matured to the level of the "Declaration of Independence."

The reviewer submits that it is possible to reconstruct the course of events somewhat differently without doing violence to the evidence. One may assume that Jefferson himself drew an original Declaration of Independence, revised it by striking out and interlining until the document became almost unreadable to anyone other than himself; that he then made a clean copy of this which he styled the Rough Draft; that it was this draft that he passed to John Adams and that John Adams copied it, capitalizing important words, primarily nouns, on his own accord since he, like Paine, had the habit of using capitals freely. At any rate, Jefferson, if he copied from Paine, did not feel obliged to reproduce the capitals as Adams did. After submitting his Rough Draft to Adams, Jefferson continued to correct and to polish it by striking out and interlining before submitting the amended draft to the committee. If one assumes this sequence of events, one has a perfectly natural explanation of how in Jefferson's Rough Draft one phrase came to be repeated. The Rough Draft was a copy, but a copy of Jefferson's original.

The author makes the sweeping statement that he has examined the writings of Jefferson and that among them there is no evidence that Jefferson was in favor of the abolition of slavery prior to the drafting of the "Declaration of Independence." The simple fact is that in Jefferson's Instructions to the Virginia Delegates to the First Continental Congress, written by him about two years before this, he does emphatically express himself as committed to the abolition of slavery and condemns the King for having fastened this institution upon the colonies through his encouragement of the slave trade. In this document also Jefferson states that the people have received their rights from the law of nature and not from the King, that if the King dissolves their colonial assemblies, all powers revert to the people. He condemns almost all acts of Parliament condemned in the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Lewis takes an entirely different attitude with respect to the nature of the Declaration of Independence than does the reviewer. Apparently Mr. Lewis assumes that the document embodies an effort at the clear expression of absolute political truth and is horrified at the statement that Adams and Jefferson made concerning the casual way in which they decided who was to try his hand at drafting the document. He is inclined to believe they did not remember correctly. The reviewer believes that their memory was probably accurate enough. It was not the task of the draftsman to say anything new. If he did, it would defeat the purpose of the document. He must restate the revolutionary philosophy that had been accepted by the colonists from the days of John Locke, repeat the indictments against Parliament and King, using phrases to which they were accustomed. Jefferson no doubt unconsciously borrowed from Paine. He probably was more indebted to Locke. The reviewer looks upon the "Declaration of Independence" as a document of practical politics, nothing less than a platform for a political party–the Whigs. The virtue of the document would then lie in the fact that it was so drawn that it would receive the acceptance of the greatest possible number of people and alienate as few as possible. Differences of view and of interest must either be omitted from such a document or must be phrased as to permit different people to read different meanings into it. Jefferson was only playing the part of the practical politician when, after having performed the task of drafting such a document, he did not stubbornly insist upon the retention of the antislavery clause but was willing to stand by and see the document so modified that it would not drive some of the slavery states out of the budding Union. Without union the resolution for independence could not have become effective and the formal Declaration of Independence would have become an expression of academic idealism, of idealistic but blasted hopes and intentions.

The reviewer, along with some other historians, has long assumed that Jefferson was one of the most unscrupulous men that ever occupied the presidential chair, but he cannot bring himself to believe that he was morally as low as the acceptance of Mr. Lewis' thesis would compel one to believe. Think of the moral depravity of a man who would ask to have placed on his tombstone the statement that he was the author of something or other that was really written by someone else! Neither can the reviewer believe that Jefferson was fool enough to take such a risk. Just think of the foolhardiness of a man claiming such authorship and accepting without hesitation the credit universally ascribed to him, when old John Adams, his political enemy, and Ton Paine were still living and, by revealing the truth, could have blown him and his reputation sky high!

Mr. Lewis has produced a remarkable book. It is marred somewhat by the author's categorical statement of personal opinions about matters that can be neither proved or disproved. For example, the author states that the production of Common Sense "was the the greatest single literary achievement in the history of the printed word." It may have been, but it can't be proved. He has, however, made a strong case in his main contention. Men have been hung before now when the prosecution had a much weaker case. An array of selected facts, even though they have stood the test of the canons of historical criticism, do not always add up to the truth.

Indiana University

Albert L. Kohlmeier

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.