In Dec. 1818 – 198 years ago –Thomas Jefferson wrote Robert Walsh, Jr., a letter. In it he included an anecdote that speaks to the relative value of revising a document.
Who, you ask, is Robert Walsh? And why did the former President correspond with him on such a matter?
Born in Baltimore in 1785, Walsh was a publicist, diplomat, lawyer, writer and editor. After graduating from Georgetown in 1801, he studied law, toured Europe and wrote essays on U.S. law that were published by newspapers in Paris and London.
By 1808, Walsh was settled in the States and admitted to the Bar. In 1811, he established the American Review of History and Politics, based in Philadelphia. From that point, he seems to have pursued literature exclusively.
In 1819, he wrote a document titled “Appeal from the Judgment of Great Britain respecting the United States.” In it he criticized British periodicals’ editorial treatment of America. In 1821, he founded the National Gazette, which he edited for 15 years.
Walsh returned to Europe in 1837. From 1844 to 1851, he served as consul general of the United States in Paris. When Walsh died in 1859, someone wrote that he had been “the literary and intrinsical link between Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton and the men of the present day.”
Back to Jefferson’s anecdote.
When the Declaration of Independence was under consideration by Congress, it seems that more than a few clauses were repeatedly revised, rewritten and reworded. And always someone complained about the phraseology of the proposed final draft. Sound familiar?
Jefferson wrote Walsh that, on one such occasion, Benjamin Franklin, perceiving Jefferson’s consternation over this issue, spoke up and told a story about his early days in the printing business. “[O]ne of my companions, an apprentice hatter,” Franklin began (addressing Congress, remember!), “was about to open a shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome sign-board, with a proper inscription.”
Franklin said that the gentleman “composed it in these words: ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money.’” On the sign was a picture of a hat.
Although satisfied with the result, the hatter decided to “submit it to his friends for their amendments.”
“The first he showed it to thought ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because [it was] followed by ‘makes hats,’ which showed he was a hatter.” So, that word was deleted.
“The next observed that ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats.” So, he struck ‘makes’ from the text.
“A third [friend] said he thought ‘for ready money’ useless, as it was not [customary] to sell on credit. [So, those words] were parted with, and the inscription now stood ‘John Thompson sells hats.’”
The next to examine the board remarked, “‘Sells hats?’ Why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of ‘sells?’” So, it was stricken. As was ‘hats,’ “as there was one painted on the board. So, the inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson,’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.”
Sometimes less is more. But not always.