• The Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson’s Brilliant Cover Letter

    In my last post I mentioned how it took Henri Matisse eight years of almost continual, major reworking to complete his painting, Bathers by a River, and today I want to point out how the same excruciating reworking is inherent in the creative writing process, as well.

    Good writing is a craft as well as an art. Job seekers need to learn how to best capture and articulate their unique attributes because employers, who are looking for the cream of the crop, need to be able to see who we are and what we are capable of doing for them.

    As visual artists learn from Matisse, writers can also learn from those who have mastered the challenge. Writing is hard work. Meaningful prose does not come trippingly off the tongue, and job seekers need to balance their skills, experience and passion to create a brilliant, attention-grabbing cover letter.

    Peggy Noonan’s illuminating Wall Street Journal article, A Cold Man’s Warm Words, about the vicissitudes Thomas Jefferson suffered whilst lead writer on the Declaration of Independence provide valuable lessons about the humility and statesmanship required in what was no doubt the most challenging writing assignment of his life.

    Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at work on the Declaration of Independence

    Noonan writes:

    “It was July 1, 2 ,3 and 4, 1776, in the State House in Philadelphia. America was being born. The Continental Congress was reviewing and editing the language of the proposed Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, was suffering the death of a thousand cuts.

    “The beginning of the Declaration had a calm stateliness that signaled, subtly, that something huge is happening: ‘When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separate.’ This gave a tone of moral modesty to an act, revolution, that is not a modest one. And it was an interesting modesty, expressing respect for the opinion of the world while assuming the whole world was watching.

    “The second paragraph will, literally, live forever in the history of man. It still catches the throat: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

    “What followed was a list of grievances that made the case for separation from the mother country, and this part was fiery. Jefferson was a cold man who wrote with great feeling. He trained his eyes on the depredations of King George III: ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns. . . . He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compete the work of death, desolation and tyranny . . .’

    “Members of the Congress read and reread, and the cutting commenced. Sometimes they cooled Jefferson down. He wrote that the king ‘suffered the administration of justice totally to cease in some of these states.’ They made it simpler: ‘He has obstructed the Administration of Justice.’

    “For Thomas Jefferson it became a painful ordeal, as change after change was called for and approximately a quarter of what he had written was cut entirely. I quote from the historian David McCullough‘s “John Adams,” as I did last year at this time, because everything’s there. ‘Jefferson looked on in silence. Mr. McCullough notes that there is no record that he uttered a word in protest or in defense of what he’d written. Benjamin Franklin, sitting nearby, comforted him: Edits often reduce things to their essence, don’t fret.’” [Be sure to read all of Noonan's article to see some of Jefferson's most poignant words which were cut.]

    Noonan notes, “It hurt Thomas Jefferson to see these words removed from his great document. And we know something about how he viewed his life, his own essence and meaning, from the words he directed that would, a half-century after 1776, be cut onto his tombstone. The first word after his name is ‘Author.’”

    We writers, like Jefferson, writing for our lives if not our country’s, need to reach a point where we realize we have done the best we possibly can and let go. Our words, after all, are validated by our readers. King George III got the point and future employers will get ours, as well. That does not mean we will automatically get the job; remember how many years it took for the Colonial Army to get the job done – but in the end they did!

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