1776 in a New Light

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Talk about changing the subject! The Washington Post reports:

"Subjects."

That's what Thomas Jefferson first wrote in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence to describe the people of the 13 colonies.

But in a moment when history took a sharp turn, 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."

No longer subjects to the crown, the colonists became something different: a people whose allegiance was to one another, not to a faraway monarch.

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.

Using a modified version of the kind of spectral imaging technology developed for the military and for monitoring agriculture, research scientists teased apart the mystery and reconstructed the word that Jefferson banished in 1776.

Jefferson may be the best-known personage illuminated so far by computer-assisted infrared and ultraviolet imaging, but he's hardly the earliest. The letters of ancient Roman officers and soldiers on the northern English frontier, written on wax-coated tablets the approximate size of today's smartphones, have been deciphered from traces left by styli and preserved in the ruins of forts. Multispectral imaging is also helping retrieve new information from papyri discovered in an ancient Egyptian waste paper dump.

The discovery raises two questions. One is about Jefferson and the Founding. Why did he write "subjects" in the first place? What kind of psychological leap must the early concept of citizen have been, like the transition from royally granted privileges to natural, self-evident rights? The other is whether 200+ years from now we will be able to retrieve any revealing traces from the electronic documents we are creating now. I suspect we'll be remembered not for our words but for our discards.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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