Six Takeaways from the Writing of The Declaration of Independence

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We recently moved our corporate offices to downtown Portland. It is a beautiful spot, on the 16th floor of a building located across the street from Tom McCall Waterfront Park along the Willamette River.

When I am stuck writing a sentence, or waiting for a marketing video to render, I can look out the window and see the world beyond.

From where I sit, I can see the American flag waving atop the park’s Battleship Oregon Memorial (the battleship played a pivotal role in the Spanish-American War 1898).

On the horizon, to the east and north, I can see the snow-topped mountain peaks of Hood, Adams and St. Helens. Depending on the time, the traffic below is either moving across the different bridges over the river and on along the highways, or is frozen in the rush hour commute.

Across the river, the twin glass spires are easily spotted at the Oregon Convention Center, where recent events included the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the 14th Annual Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber Latino Employment and Business Fair, and Portland’s “The Big Idea” discussion on homelessness.

And there, in the center of it all, The Stars and Stripes waves in a gentle breeze.

Today we celebrate our 240th birthday as the United States of America. Just as you or I would ask the question when we celebrate a birthday, I wonder what we’ve learned as a country in those two plus centuries; are we better off; are we worse; what makes us great?

Then I realized that someone else, somewhere else is writing that blog post or news column today, and they are probably doing a better job at it than I would. Instead, I wanted to share six takeaways we can all learn from the writing of The Declaration of Independence.

1. Age 33 – Milleni-what?

What were you doing on this day when you were 33? What will you be doing today if you are 33? What would you be doing on this day when you become 33?

Thirty-three is how old Thomas Jefferson was when he took the lead on drafting what would become the Declaration of Independence. Later on, when he became president, he would entrust the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory, including the Pacific Northwest, and in doing so bolster the United States’ position in the world. The average age of the expedition party – 27 years old.

Who says young people aren’t worth a damn? Or that they are better seen than heard, at least until they’ve got some more experience under their belts.

Lesson to marketers: trust your team, regardless of their age or “experience.” I am routinely amazed at the creativity, work ethic, and sense of humor of my younger coworkers. You should be, too.

(Ye Olde Editor weighs in: If you take people’s talents for granted or look down on them in any way because they are younger than you, you are a geezer, no matter how old or young you are.)

Also, Jefferson was a replacement to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia when the Virginia delegate had to go home to a sick wife – so always be prepared in case your name is called.

2. Committee of Five

In early June of 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced to the Continental Congress the resolution to declare independence from Great Britain. The Continental Congress put off making a decision until July. In the interim, they created three committees to do some follow up work on the rationale for independence, what the colonies would look like as a group or federation, and how that federation would work with other nations, particularly France.

In the first committee, the Continental Congress asked Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to draft the reasons for independence, what we now call the Declaration of Independence.

I’ve worked in all sizes of groups. And it’s hard. Lots of personalities and egos, including my own. Lots of time needed to get everyone up to speed and keep them there. And nowadays, working in groups can be even harder when you are doing it with a team in different locations, in different time zones, from different cultures, and you’re doing it on different platforms.

Two organizational management researchers, one from the Wharton School and the other at INSEAD, recently published an article about the secrets of great teamwork for the Harvard Business Review’s June 2016 issue.

In it, they report their research from over 15 years, 300 interviews and 4,200 surveys found four critical factors to a team’s success:

  • compelling direction,
  • a strong structure,
  • a supportive context, and
  • a shared mindset.

They also say successful teams have a balance of skills and a diversity of perspective, view and knowledge, as well as age, gender, and race.

From our viewpoint today and looking at the Committee of Five, they’d get negative points for only being a bunch of rich white guys.

But in other areas, their parts made them pretty great. Franklin and Sherman were the two oldest delegates to the Congress, balancing out Jefferson being the youngest member. Jefferson and John Adams were influential founding fathers, and also very different in their personal views (later finding themselves in the very different Federalist and Democrat-Republican parties). Adams was filled with opinions, Sherman more reserved. Livingston was an adept negotiator.

They also had a clear direction with their assignment – explain the reason for independence.

They had a supportive context – the committee members knew their work would be challenging and so distributed the work assignments more evenly with their other commitments to the Congress.

They also had a shared mindset. They were all in Philly for one thing, to consider severing ties with Great Britain.

Who says nothing good can come from a committee? Have they read the Declaration of Independence?

3. Beg, borrow or steal great ideas

I don’t know about you, but I find these to be among the sweetest sounding lines ever written and one of the reasons the Declaration remains so important and inspirational.

But have you read Section 1 from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was adopted by the Virginia colony in early June 1776 just as the Committee of Five was getting together to start work on writing the Declaration of Independence?

The Virginia declaration was written by George Mason, and Section 1 goes like this:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Sound familiar? Jefferson was influenced by Mason’s text, which he likely had a copy of when he started his writing. He also likely referenced his own early drafts of the Virginia Constitution, too. And both men were influenced by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense published earlier that year.

And all three were influenced by British philosopher John Locke’s writing nearly a century earlier, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…”

As Jefferson later wrote, “I did not consider it a part of my charge to invent new ideas, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject.”

OK, what all that tells us is that we should always be on the lookout for good ideas, and once found think about how we can iterate on them to fit our specific worlds. Don’t steal, but be inspired. One of my favorite reads on this subject is Blue Ocean Strategy.

4. Iterate and improve

So you know I love the preamble. But would I have loved this earlier version?

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness”

After an initial brainstorming on what they wanted to cover in the declaration, Jefferson went off and over the course of 12 days wrote the first draft. Then he passed it on to Franklin and the others for some good old editing.

It was Franklin that made the change to, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

With shrinking budgets and other priorities, we often don’t have the resources or the time to have our work reviewed by an editor. This could be an upcoming press release, blog post, eBook or web page. Or it could be a few lines of code you are going to push out to the network without testing.

Both instances benefit from an editor (or a QA check in engineering). If you don’t have a designated editor, or you are a Do-It-All marketer, then ask a friend, coworker, partner, or spouse to give it a read. You can also try sleeping on it, and letting whatever you’re working on sit for a day and re-read it with fresh eyes.

Chances are “self-evident” you’re going to get a better product as a result.

5. Working on deadline

The Committee of Five only had a few weeks to deliver their assignment. From formation to the first draft being submitted was only 17 days. Reportedly Jefferson had an early draft completed in one or two days.

“Deadlines can be energizing and help you to sharpen your focus, set priorities, collaborate effectively with a team, and get work done, all while keeping projects on track and on schedule,” writes Elizabeth Grace Saunders in the Harvard Business Review. “Think of it this way. Deadlines are a done-for-you prioritization tool that tells you a given project is important to focus on since its deadline is earlier.”

In her article, the time coach advocates that we set deadlines only for work that matters. For other assignments, we can be squishy on when the task or project will be complete, such as early next week, next quarter or you can just add it to the to-do list without a date. When priorities or resources change, you can then reassess whether a hard deadline is needed.

6. Best Work of Our Lives

When fighting began in the American Revolution, few believed it would lead to independence from Great Britain. And when the Committee of Five started work on their assignment, my guess is that they were thinking they were just outlining the reasons for independence to be listed on a broadsheet that could be read to the public, and not the great charter that it would become.

As a result, you’re hard pressed to find details about their writing process, or the day-to-day specifics of those few weeks in which The Declaration was being drafted. Some of what we know came later, when the founding fathers were asked about it. And the result is that they offered conflicting stories, or had fuzzy memories.

The point is that you may not know just when the project you are working on is going to be hailed for its greatness in later generations. So appreciate the moments and take pride in your work.

At Act-On, our mission is to help marketers do the best work of their lives. And, internally, we want to be able to deliver on that goal by doing the best work of our lives.

Perhaps by having that intent, we increase our chances of success. At the very least, the positive energy generated around here is pretty awesome.

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3, the day after the Continental Congress approved the resolution of independence. He predicted the 2nd would be the date we’d celebrate thereafter. He was off by a couple of days. It was on July 4th, when the Declaration was adopted that would be considered our Independence Day.

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” Adams wrote. “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

From everyone in our Act-On family, we want to wish you a Happy Independence Day. And for everyone outside the United States, Happy Monday!

As we’ve seen in takeaway #2 – The Committee of Five, it is important for successful teams to have a balance of skills and a diversity of perspective, view and knowledge. But building a successful team is no easy feat especially when you consider the structure and budgets you need in place to thrive. Download Act-On’s eBook, The High-Performance Marketing Department, to learn how to staff for a modern marketing departments skill sets, and how to secure the budget you deserve.