Today, we wonder: Who invented the Declaration of
Independence? The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A camel, says the old
canard, is a horse invented by a committee. In our
search for creative excellence, we look to the
individual, not the corporate body. Yet that can
mislead us. Take the case of Thomas Jefferson and
the Declaration of Independence.
John F. Kennedy once called a gathering of
intellectuals at the White House, "the greatest
assembly of brain-power since Thomas Jefferson
dined here alone." A genius Jefferson surely was,
but a complex and inconsistent genius. Historian
Joseph Ellis goes back to drafts of the Declaration
of Independence. They're all in Jefferson's hand,
but crossed out and added to as Congress debated.
Jefferson originally included a passage about
[The King] has waged cruel war against human
nature itself, violating ... a distant people ...
carrying them into slavery, or [a] miserable death
in their transportation hither ...
So far so good. But he went on to say,
[The King] is now exciting those very people to
rise in arms among us, and to purchase ... liberty
... by murdering the people upon whom he also
What a frightfully mixed message! He blames slavery
on the King, then blames the King for stirring up
the slaves. That passage didn't survive. Nor did a
remark about the British: "...manly spirit bids us
to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren."
Line by line, the excesses were pared away. Lesser
changes gradually establish the verbal rhythm and
balance that moved the Englishman G.K. Chesterton
America is the only nation ... founded on a
creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic, and
even theological lucidity in the Declaration of
Independence, perhaps the only piece of practical
politics that is also theoretical politics and also
But it is literature that flowed from both
Jefferson and Congress. Another majestic document,
our Constitution, followed a few years later. It
was the work of Congress and a steering committee.
The King James translation of the Bible was made by
a royal task force with over 50 members. Now
there's a perfect formula for mediocrity! Yet it
stands today as the English language at its finest.
So what about that horse designed in committee?
There is truth in that image. Creative excellence
must come to rest on individual commitment. But the
King James Bible and the Constitution were both put
together by individuals cooperating on a product
they believed in passionately.
When cooperation and compromise are undertaken with
that seriousness of purpose, great works follow. If
we said less to our students about the Famous Names
and more about that powerful process of determined
cooperation, we'd see more greatness -- in all our
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds