When the Continental Congress assembled the Committee of Five to draft the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin was a perfect candidate to draft the historic document. Franklin was likely the most famous American in 1776. His aptitude across a range of varied pursuits — scientific, literary, and otherwise — granted him a caliber of respect unmatched by his colonial contemporaries. The Franklin stove, bifocals, lightning rods, Philadelphia’s first fire department, and countless pithy adages are credited to this indispensable Founding Father.
So why was Thomas Jefferson selected to write the document that would come to define America’s fundamental values? In contrast to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson was relatively unknown, and likewise lacked Franklin’s experience. Rumors have circulated that Franklin was not selected due to the fear that he would insert humor undermining the seriousness of the Declaration. According to this explanation, telling Benjamin Franklin to honor the solemnity of the document would only trigger his cunning ability to write subversively, and Franklin’s innuendo might take decades to uncover.
There is little evidence for this theory, however. The reasons for Jefferson’s selection to draft the Declaration are speculative, but Jefferson’s Virginian background was important. The southern colonies had more Loyalists (individuals sympathetic with Britain), making it paramount that a southerner make the case for independence. Other factors likely included Franklin’s poor health and preoccupation with diplomacy, as well as Jefferson’s stronger independence bona fides (Franklin had once opposed American independence).
Thomas Jefferson was, of course, a superb writer in his own right. His writing that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” belied the history of human civilization as well as life in the colonies themselves. The profound nature of Jefferson’s writings would have been difficult to improve upon. Franklin served as Thomas Jefferson’s chief editor for the Declaration, and found few changes to make (more fundamental changes were made by the Committee of Five). If anyone in the colonies could have matched Jefferson’s literary prowess, though, it was probably Benjamin Franklin.