Rough Draft

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)

Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated;  before they were proposed, they had to be composed.

Assigned by the Continental Congress to draft a declaration of independence, Thomas Jefferson labored in a Philadelphia boarding house with a portable writing desk on his lap. (The only exact replica of the desk is on display in the exhibition.)  On the page you can see the play of his mind in his own painstaking hand. You can see where Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, among others, made edits. (The Congress made many more of its own, much to Jefferson’s consternation.) You can see the same process of give and take in the drafting of the Constitution. You can even see Jefferson’s personal scorecard as the Bill of Rights was debated, when he kept his own tally of amendments voted up or down.

Thomas Jefferson “Tabulation of State Votes on Amendments to the Constitution,” 1789–1791. Manuscript document. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson “Tabulation of State Votes on Amendments to the Constitution,” 1789–1791. Manuscript document. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

While the founders are often idealized, they were fallible and subject to the prejudices of their age. They failed to abolish slavery. They failed to address the decimation of Native American life and civilization. They failed to grant suffrage to women. These defects, and the attempts to remedy them, are also described in Creating the United States, together with the Skirball’s companion exhibitions Decades of Dissent, Free to Be U.S., and Lincoln Spotlight.

For all of its merits, the United States is a work in progress. From the Skirball’s point of view, that is the point of these exhibitions: to remind us that democracy is a process, and that its survival depends upon the informed participation of every citizen.

It is a very rare opportunity to see these humble, handwritten pages up close. They are surprisingly small. The ink is faded. The penmanship itself is an artifact. Yet these documents are as eloquent and powerful as any ever written. When their faded ink was fresh, the world was ruled by kings. The idea of government by consent of the governed was a fledgling in its nest. Today that idea has changed everything. It’s worth looking back to when and how it started, and to reflect upon what it still means and what it can yet mean.

Come to the Skirball and discover for yourself why, more than ever, democracy matters.

We look forward to

The exhibition officially opened today! We look forward to welcoming you to the gallery soon.

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