J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Getting a Peek at Jefferson’s Original Language

Last July, the Washington Post reported on how Dr. Fenella France investigated a word that Thomas Jefferson erased and wrote over in his earliest draft of the Declaration of Independence:
Jefferson sought quite methodically to expunge the word, to wipe it out of existence and write over it. Many words were crossed out and replaced in the draft, but only one was obliterated.

Over the smudge, Jefferson then wrote the word “citizens.” . . .

Scholars of the revolution have long speculated about the “citizens” smear — wondering whether the erased word was “patriots” or “residents” — but now the Library of Congress has determined that the change was far more dramatic.
France scanned the document using different wavelengths of light, and then combined and compared those scans on a computer. That allowed her to decipher the erased word: “subjects.” For Jefferson and the Continental Congress he wrote for, that was a significant verbal shift in understanding how people related to their state.

This month the Post published another article on Fenella France:
France, 44, now a leading cultural heritage preservation scientist at the Library of Congress, was named one of four finalists for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Science and Environmental Medal for her work in developing imaging techniques that won’t harm documents. Considered the federal worker’s Academy Awards, the Service to America medals are awarded annually by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
Notably, France is an immigrant from New Zealand, once part of the “Second British Empire” that the U.K. assembled after losing half of its North American colonies. (New Zealanders made the formal shift from “subjects” to “citizens” with a new law in 1948.) That country is clearly proud of her work.

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