With one smudge of a feathered fountain pen back in 1776, American history changed forever.
Chemists and archivists analyzing the U.S. Declaration of Independence have long speculated about cross-outs and smudges in Thomas Jefferson's original rough draft of the document. One smudge was much more aggressively wiped out than others. And on Friday, officials at the Library of Congress revealed for the first time what they believe was a Freudian slip by one of America's Founding Fathers.
Jefferson is believed to have first written the word "subjects" to describe the American population, and then replaced it with the term "citizens," which appears throughout the historic document. Even in the midst of declaring the United States' independence from Britain, Jefferson may not have fully escaped the mindset of a monarchy.
"It shows the progress of his mind. This was a decisive moment," said James Billington, the U.S. librarian of Congress.
"We recovered a magic moment that was otherwise lost to history," he said. His comments and those of researchers were reported by several news agencies.
On Friday, librarians briefly took the document out of its oxygen-free vault in Washington for the first time in 15 years, to ferry it under police escort to another facility for more high-tech imaging.
A research chemist at the Library, Fenalla France, said she believes Jefferson used his hand to wipe out the word "subjects" while the ink was still wet. There's a distinct brown smudge on the paper, over which he penned the word "citizens" instead.
Discovering what was underneath the smudge required the use of a high resolution digital camera to take a series of photos of layers of the document. They reveal erased text and even fingerprints from the founding fathers -- what France called "spine-tingling" finds.
"This has been a very exciting development," she said.
Jefferson's edit was made on the third page of his four-page original draft, in a section in which he lists grievances against King George III. The sentence never made it into the final version, but the word "citizens" -- never "subjects" -- appears prominently throughout.
Scholars have speculated as to whether the smudge reveals a Freudian slip by Jefferson, who grew up as a subject of Britain's king, or whether his first draft adopted some of the language from a draft of Virginia's constitution, which uses the words "our fellow subjects."