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Hyperspectral Imaging Reveals Declaration's Lost Text

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WASHINGTON, July 2, 2010 — Recent hyperspectral imaging of Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence clearly confirmed past speculation that Jefferson made an interesting word correction during his writing of the document, according to scientists in the Preservation Research and Testing Div. (PRTD) of the Library of Congress.

A series of images showing the word "citizens" analyzed under various wavelengths, with certain images enhanced by computer to make the underlying word "subjects" more apparent. (Images: Library of Congress)

Jefferson originally had written the phrase “our fellow subjects.” But he apparently changed his mind. Heavily scrawled over the word “subjects” was an alternative, the word “citizens.”

The correction seems to illuminate an important moment for Jefferson and for a nation on the eve of breaking from monarchical rule: a moment when he reconsidered his choice of words and articulated the recognition that the people of the fledgling United States of America were no longer subjects of any nation, but citizens of an emerging democracy.

The correction occurs in the portion of the declaration that deals with US grievances against King George III, in particular, his incitement of “treasonable insurrections.” While the specific sentence doesn’t make it into the final draft, a similar phrase was retained, and the word “citizens” is used elsewhere in the final document. The sentence didn’t carry over, but the idea did.

Fenella France, a scientist in PRTD, conducted the hyperspectral imaging in the fall of 2009 and discovered a blurred word under “citizens.”

Fenella France, research chemist in the Library's Preservation, Research and Testing Div., talks about digital images that were captured by the Library's hyperspectral imaging system.

“It had been a spine-tingling moment when I was processing data late at night and realized there was a word underneath citizens. Then I began the tough process of extracting the differences between spectrally similar materials to elucidate the lost text,” France said.

Hyperspectral imaging is the process of taking digital photos of an object using distinct portions of the visible and nonvisible light spectrum, revealing what previously could not be seen by the human eye. The hyperspectral imaging system is located in the library’s Optical Properties Laboratory, on the sub-basement level of the James Madison Building.

A detail of the portion of page 3 of the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, focusing on where "subjects" was originally written and replaced with "citizens."

Fascinating details of our historical heritage have been coming to light with the use of hyperspectral imaging. For instance, recent imaging of the heavily varnished and visually obscured 1791 Pierre L’Enfant Plan of Washington, D.C., has clearly revealed invisible streets and special locations, including the “President’s House” and “Congress’ House.”

The Thomas Jefferson word correction has been suspected for some time by scholars. In “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1: 1760-1776” (Princeton University Press, 1950), Julian P. Boyd wrote “TJ originally wrote ‘fellow-subjects,’ copying the term from the corresponding passage in the first page of the First Draft of the Virginia Constitution; then, while the ink was still wet on the ‘Rough draught’ he expunged or erased ‘subjects’ and wrote ‘citizens’ over it.”

The rough draft of the Declaration of Independence can be explored in stunning detail at the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson Building or in the online version of the exhibition “Creating the United States” at
Jul 2010
hyperspectral imaging
Methods for identifying and mapping materials through spectroscopic remote sensing. Also called imaging spectroscopy; ultraspectral imaging.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
AmericasCongressConstitutionDeclaration of IndependenceFenella Francehyperspectral imagingimagingKing George IIILibrary of Congresslightlost textOptical Properties LaboratoryPRTDrough draftThe Papers of Thomas JeffersonThomas JeffersonVirginia ConstitutionvisibleWashingtonwavelengths

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