Jefferson’s First Draft: Subjects versus Citizens

Scientists at the Library of Congress have recently discovered that in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson referred to the residents of the colonies as subjects and not as citizens. However, based on the evidence, it appears that Jefferson almost immediately decided against using the word and wanted to hide any record of using it. He did so by smudging out the word while the ink was still wet and then carefully wrote the word citizens over it. (It is important to note that the sentence the word was used in never appeared in the final version, but the word citizen was used in another section in the final draft).

Words matter. By not using the word subjects and instead citizens, the Declaration of Independence helped signify that the nature of government in the thirteen colonies was about to change. The colonists (as in, rich, white males) would no longer be “subjects”, subordinate to and at the behest of their government. They would be “citizens”, and the government existed to serve them and protect their rights. While it would take almost a century for the US to eventually solidify the meaning of national citizenship (the 14th amendment) and another century for the federal government to uniformly recognize and protect the political rights of all its citizens, the movement away from the idea of being a subject and instead a citizen helped lay the foundation for a more inclusive, more liberal, and more democratic American government.

For more on this story, see here and here.

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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