The Declaration of Independence:
Was It Written by Thomas Paine?
[Reprinted from the
Hammondsport Herald of July 6, 1906]
Ever since the Revolution there has been a tradition in certain
parts of the country that the real author of the Declaration of
Independence was Thomas Paine. The storm of opprobrium that beat
upon Paine's name because of his religious writings almost
eradicated this tradition.
But now that there is a marked tendency to do justice to his
unquestioned services to liberty, the legend has revived. It should
be said in the outset that with the religious controversy concerning
Paine this article has nothing to do. His writing on that subject
did not appear till near the end of is life. All the most active
years of his manhood were spent in the domain of politics, and the
political works of which he was the author are much more numerous
and voluminous than those on theology. It is beyond question that he
wrought powerfully for the rights of man not only in America, but in
France and England; that he risked imprisonment and even life in
doing so and that the American sense of justice and fair play can be
trusted to give recognition to these services on their own merit.
Passing all that by, the inquiry into the authorship of the
Declaration of Independence is of sufficient interest to warrant a
dispassionate investigation. Reverting to the tradition connecting
Paine with that document, it is a significant fact that a newspaper
of Newark, N. J., nearly a century ago threatened to divulge the
name of the real author of the Declaration and there stated that he
was a well known writer and used other terms in describing him that
could have referred to no one else than Paine. A further fact of
interest is that the friendship between Paine and Jefferson
continued unbroken to the end, Jefferson sending a warship to bring
Paine to this country. Another fact that may have some bearing on
the matter is that Jefferson never claimed to be the author of the
document until near the end of his life, which was years after
Paine's death, and even then in slightly ambiguous terms, which are
capable of an interpretation that will be brought out later.
The evidence on which the claim of Paine's authorship rests is
internal, however, and must be found in the document itself. Several
pamphlets and books have been written on the subject in the last
thirty years. Prominent among those who had supported the Paine
theory may be mentioned William Henry Burr and Van Buren Denslow,
students and authors of recognized ability.
In the first draft of the Declaration occurred the words, "Scotch
and foreign mercenaries." This offended some members of the
Continental Congress of Scotch extraction, and they objected so
strongly that the words "Scotch and" were stricken out.
Now, Jefferson not only had no antipathy against the Scotch, but was
rather prejudiced in their favor, having had two Scotch tutors, so
that he could scarcely have written a clause so reflecting on them,
but Paine was known to dislike the Scotch, having expressed that
dislike in his writings and private conversations. Nor is this the
only or even the most conclusive evidence connected with this
passage. Jefferson in later years in writing of it showed that he
was not sufficiently familiar with this first draft of the
Declaration to quote it correctly, for he gave it, "Scotch and
other foreign auxiliaries." Is it probable if he had been the
author of it that he would have made the mistake of injecting the
word "other" and misquoting "auxiliaries" for "mercenaries?"
The very injection of "other" is significant, for
Jefferson, having been born in Virginia, would naturally look on the
Scotch as foreign and would therefore say "Scotch and other
foreign," etc., but the author of that passage in the original
Declaration evidently had another viewpoint, for he said "Scotch
and foreign mercenaries," indicating that he did not think of
the Scotch as foreigners. Now, Paine was an Englishman, and whatever
his prejudice against the Scotch might have been, a prejudice
somewhat common among Englishmen of that day, he would not regard
them as foreigners, Scotland and England being united in a common
Another passage in the original Declaration of Independence
censured King George for introducing the slave trade into the
colonies, asserting that this traffic, which had been the reproach
of "infidel" countries, was thus condoned by "a
Christian king." This passage was likewise expurgated by
Congress, as it gave offense to some of the southern members. Now,
while Jefferson in later life deplored the existence of slavery, it
is hardly possible that at this time he would have injected such
language into a state paper. Nor is it likely that he would have
made the veiled thrust at Christianity contained in the sarcastic
reference to "a Christian king." That was not Jefferson's
style. But it was Paine's style. Also the sentiments are his.
Already in the Pennsylvania Magazine he had written
against slavery. Jefferson, notwithstanding his advanced notions,
was not without policy, and there is no policy in this paragraph.
But Paine spoke his mind regardless of policy.
One of the most surprising things about the Declaration of
Independence is that it makes but slight reference to the subject of
taxation, despite the fact that the first troubles between the
colonists and the mother country had been over the stamp act and "no
taxation without representation" had become the American
rallying cry. Jefferson had no peculiar bias that would have caused
him to make so notable an omission, but Paine had. He regarded the
taxation issue as trivial and as being too mercenary to be worthy of
so much attention. These sentiments are freely expressed in his
writings. Liberty and independence were the great shibboleths with
him, and these are always the keynotes sounded in the Declaration.
Moreover, the ideas throughout the document are those of Paine. His
ideas of government, as embodied in his "Common Sense,"
ideas which were then considered peculiar, are found in the
Declaration of Independence. His theories as to equality, as to the
rights of man and as to the right of rebellion not only in this
particular instance, but generally, are all stated in that
instrument. Not only so, but the methods of expression are
startlingly like those in his published works. The style is not the
scholarly, easy and pleasing one of Jefferson, but the terse,
epigrammatic, forceful one of Paine.
The manner of piling up the indictments against the king, charge
upon charge, until they became a very mountain of evidence, is the
well known method of Paine, not that of Jefferson. The employment of
certain words in peculiar ways, such as "decent," "equal,"
"rights," "happiness" and many more found in the
document, is significant, for these were stock words with Paine, and
he used them in just the ways they were used here. The reference to
"nature and nature's God" is in perfect keeping with
Paine's well known deistical notions and startlingly calls to mind
his eloquent apostrophe to the revelation of God found in nature.
There are three references to the Creator in the Declaration, and
they are all very like Paine, who thoroughout his political works is
constantly making similar utterances. Jefferson, while a deist also,
hardly ever makes a mention of God in his political writings.
Most of the above considerations are urged by Denslow and Burr, but
there is one little piece of evidence that seemingly has escaped
these authors which to the writer seems the most conclusive of all.
It is the use of the word, "hath," which occurs in the
preamble of the document. Scholarly Jefferson in all his writing is
never known to have employed this archaic verb ending, while Thomas
Paine used it frequently and in just such a connection as it is
found in here. That may seem a small thing, but it is just such a
clew as a detective selects to work out a case. It is like the bone
of a prehistoric monster from which the scientist constructs the
The most probable theory of the writing of this most famous of
political manifestoes is as follows: After the publication of Common
Sense, which had fired the colonies for separation, Paine urged
the step in season and out of season. What more natural than that he
should have framed a paper that could be adopted by Congress as its
reasons for independence? After writing such paper he would
naturally read it to some of his cronies. Two of his most familiar
friends were Jefferson and Franklin. When these two were appointed
on the committee, what more probable than that they should have gone
to Paine to get the draft. Using this as a basis, Jefferson could
have written the copy presented to Congress. Some words he would
doubtless change. Probably he would frame introductory and closing
sentences. This theory would be in keeping with Jefferson's own
utterances on the subject. It was years after that he made the first
reference to the matter. Then he only said: "The committee for
drawing the Declaration of Independence desired me to do it. It was
accordingly done, and, being approved by them I reported it to the
House on Friday, the 28th of June." It was not till just before
his death that he said, "I wrote it." In a manual sense
that was doubtless true. The opening and closing sentences and
certain alterations he may have actually originated, but as to the
main body of the document it can be said as it was said of old: "The
hand is the hand of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob."
The hand is the hand of Jefferson, but the voice is the voice of
The fact that Paine never claimed the authorship is in perfect
keeping with his character. He was ever a most secretive man. Most
of his works at this stage in his career were anonymous. Common
Sense was published anonymously, and The Crisis
practically so. His contributions to the Pennsylvania Magazine
were signed by fictitious names and initials. Many letters he is
known to have written and others that are believed to be his he
never acknowledged to the time of his death.
Moreover, to have made this claim in relation to the Declaration of
Independence would have embarrassed his friend, Jefferson, which,
both for personal and political reasons, he would have been
unwilling to do.