I read a fantastic book of short stories this weekend – Thom Jones’ The Pugilist at Rest – and I really want to review it for you, but I don’t quite have the wherewithal for that now. I’ve been copy-editing like crazy for a freelance job, and I declare today to be National Hug a Copy Editor Day (except not me because eww – germs), and on National Hug a Copy Editor Day one does not write reviews if one cannot do one’s best work. It’s the law.
Besides wrangling dependent clauses, my other obsession these days is the Hamilton soundtrack. My God – it’s just fantastic. For those who may not know, it’s a new Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. It gets a little Schoolhouse Rockish sometimes, but just as I start to roll my eyes a little it does something so subtle or ironic or charming that it seduces me right back in again. Thanks to this obsession, I’ve pulled out every Founding Father biography I own (and I raided the library too) and read the first chapter or two before becoming distracted by other things – you know, like you do. In the spirit of National Hug a Copy Editor Day, I thought I would share with you the first draft of Jefferson’s iconic sentence from the Declaration of Independence. The famous final draft, of course, is 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, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Got a little chill down your spine, didn’t you?
But back to the copy editing connection: I read today in Joseph J. Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson that Jefferson’s first draft of that sentence was as follows:
“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and unalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” (Ellis 10)
The revised version isn’t as much shorter than I thought: the original draft contains 42 words, the revision 35. But the syntax! The deleting of synonyms in favor of words that add new meaning. And who would have thought a Latinate clunker like “self-evident” could jazz up a sentence so much? I will say, because I’m a nerd, that when I typed it up I caught a little dactylic tetrameter snippet that almost fits the hip-hoppish rhythms of parts of Hamilton. Imagine a hard stress on each capitalized syllable: “THEY derive RIGHTS inheRENT and unAlienable.” I know there’s a syllable at the end that I didn’t account for, but you can hear the hip-hop rhythm to it, can’t you?
To sum up: copy editors do important work, both today and in 1776. And whoever got rid of all those ampersands deserves an obelisk on the Capitol Mall.