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July 2, 2010

Hyperspectral Imaging by Library of Congress Reveals Change Made by Thomas Jefferson in Original Declaration of Independence Draft

Recent hyperspectral imaging of Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the 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 U.S. 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.

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 realized 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."

Hyperspectral imaging is the process of taking digital photos of an object using distinct portions of the visible and non-visible light spectrum, revealing what previously could not be seen by the human eye. The hyperspectral imaging system is located in the Library’s Optical Properties Laboratory, on the sub-basement level of the James Madison Building. Fascinating details of our historical heritage have been coming to light with the use of hyperspectral imaging. For instance, recent imaging of the heavily varnished and visually obscured 1791 Pierre L’Enfant Plan of Washington, D.C., has clearly revealed invisible streets and special locations, including the "President’s House" and "Congress’ House."

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 stunning detail in the online version of the exhibition "Creating the United States" at myLOC.gov (and on-site, appropriately, at the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building).

The Library of Congress, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, holds nearly 145 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library serves the U.S. Congress and the nation both on-site in its reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through its award-winning website at www.loc.gov. Many of the Library’s rich resources and treasures may also be accessed via interactive exhibitions on a personalized website at myLOC.gov.

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PR 10-161
07/02/10
ISSN 0731-3527

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