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Eighteenth Century Track Changes: Uncovering Revisions in Founding Fathers’ Documents

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Amidst the festivities as we celebrate Independence Day, let’s take a moment to consider the significance and responsibility that went into outlining, drafting, and shaping our nation as the Founding Fathers put pen to paper.

This is a guest post by Meghan Wilson and Chris Bolser in the Preservation Research and Testing Division.

When John Adams refused to draft the Declaration of Independence, recalling in a letter to Timothy Pickering that he felt he was too “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular,” Thomas Jefferson, who had “a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent at composition,” was delegated with the task.

Throughout the month of June 1776, Jefferson composed “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled,” incorporating edits from fellow committee members including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. As he revised the document, Jefferson made careful strike outs with the annotation printed clearly above it. If the change wasn’t his own, he annotated the margin to state whose it was, e.g. “Dr. Franklin” or “Mr. Adams.”

Image of handmade edits on Declaration of Independence.
Detail of revisions and annotations on page 2 of the Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence. Credit: PRTD

However, in one area on page 2, there’s an obvious smudge rather than a neat cross out. Upon closer examination under the microscope, it’s evident there is a word underneath, with “citizens” having been judiciously written atop.

Image of handmade edits on Declaration of Independence.
(Left) Ink smudge below the word “citizens.” (Right) 20x magnification shows what looks to be a lower-case crossed “t” behind the “n” in “citizens”. Credit: PRTD

So, what was originally written? And why did Jefferson go to such lengths to wipe out this particular edit compared to others?

Spectral imaging under ultraviolet (UV), visible, and infrared (IR) light enabled PRTD Chief Fenella France to conduct image processing that suppressed the over text to reveal what was underneath. This was a difficult task because the inks were very similar in composition, both being iron gall ink, and had little spectral distinction from each other. Furthermore, the document is laminated (a conservation best-practice in the mid-1900s before information was known about plasticizers) which caused a lot of textural interference in the image. Through careful manipulation and separation of pixels, it was revealed that Jefferson had originally written, “our fellow subjects” before changing it to “our fellow citizens.”

Close image of word 'citizens' over a smudged word.
Initial processing attempts exhibit an interference of texture from surface coating. Credit: Fenella France
Image processing finding the word subjects written underneath.
Depiction of image processing steps taken to reveal the original “subjects” text. Credit: Fenella France

This was an astounding, spine-tingling discovery. One might even say it sparked fireworks. (The Washington Post interviewed Preservation staff’s reactions upon the finding here.) It encapsulates a defining moment in time where Jefferson consciously thought, as he was writing, while the ink was still wet, “no, we’re not subjects of the monarchy anymore, we’re free and independent citizens.”

This change confirmed what scholars had suspected – that Jefferson was echoing text from other documents, in this case his Notes on the Virginia Constitution written less than a month earlier which uses the phrase “fellow subjects.” Thus this change captures Jefferson’s in-the-moment thought process where he knew, just after the word had been scribed, that it needed to be something more appropriate and superior. And so he very carefully rewrote “citizens” so as “subjects” could not even be detected. It emphasizes the weight that words carry and Jefferson’s keen sense for it – for inciting emotion, inspiration, and motivation in this writing.

The work to forge America’s democracy didn’t stop with the Declaration of Independence. It would take seven additional years of war for our forefathers to earn their liberation from Great Britain and another four to establish the Constitution of our new country. We hold evidence of the process that the Founding Fathers endured in order to draft the Constitution of the United States within a series of over 700 pages of exhaustive notes in which James Madison detailed the arguments and concerns of the Continental Congress during the Federal Convention of 1787. Madison’s transcriptions contain an innumerous amount of redactions, from single words to multiple paragraphs, and like Jefferson’s Subject to Citizens change, questions arose about the original script and how the meaning changed because of these alternations. Additionally, many of the edits were done after the fact – years after the Convention was over – calling into question the accuracy of Madison’s recollection.

Spectral imaging was again implemented for this task because it can be used to tease out details between materials of different chemical compositions that can’t otherwise be distinguished with the unaided eye. It can even discern the intensity of the stroke of a character. While sometimes the imaging itself is enough to differentiate words, there are many cases where additional processing techniques must be implemented in which false-colors are applied to the image to help us see a distinction.

Processed MSI image of Madison transcriptions.
f.17, “gentlemen”. Color photo (top), processed image (bottom). Credit: Chris Bolser


Processed MSI image of Madison transcriptions.
f. 47 “or to leave”. Color photo (top), processed image (bottom). Credit: Chris Bolser


Processed MSI image of Madison transcriptions.
f.32, “the safety [assuming] political liberty”. Color photo (top), processed image (bottom). Credit: Chris Bolser


Processed MSI image of Madison transcriptions.
f.93, “dishonorable”. Color photo (top), processed image (bottom). Credit: Chris Bolser


Processed MSI image of Madison transcriptions.
f.68 “to audit to the convention”. Color photo (top), processed image (bottom). Credit: Chris Bolser

Spectral imaging allows for the non-invasive exploration and discovery of historic objects and documents without risking harm to the treasured original. The availability of the original and its subsequent modifications offers invaluable insight to the thoughts and voices of our Founding Fathers and the creation of the United States. These discoveries emphasize the importance of retaining original source material and how the understanding and interpretation of our history evolves as technology progresses.

LC Catalogue Links

Thomas Jefferson, June 1776, Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, June 1776, Notes on the Virginia Constitution

James Madison’s Original Notes on Debates at the Federal Constitutional Convention

Comments (2)

  1. Sorry to be negative, but this is hardly astounding or “spine tingling,” since scholars had known, not suspected, since 1950 that Jefferson made the change referred to above in the Declaration. The software manipulation of images in both cases is just that…and does not represent a discovery in any sense.

  2. Hi Judith. Thanks for your thoughtful response. To a Jefferson scholar who may be familiar with Julian P. Boyd’s “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1: 1760-1776”, you may be correct. But to the general public, this information isn’t common knowledge and does generally spark a moment of awe. That’s why we make these blogs! We want this information to be more well known and to inspire and deepen our collective understanding of our cultural heritage and the realization that these historic figures aren’t just names in history books but were humans just like us trying to make progress for the better.

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