Seventy-eight years ago today, on Dec. 8, 1941 — a date which will live in the annals of inspired editing — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and uttered one of the most indelible phrases in all of American oratory.

A day earlier, Japan had launched a bloody surprise air raid on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Calling for a declaration of war, Roosevelt labeled Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live … in infamy.”

In case you don’t pore over the annals of inspired editing as avidly as we who toil with the hazardous raw material of words, I’m seizing this anniversary to share a few high points from what I like to call “revisionist history” — great moments in the revising of political rhetoric.

It’s hard to conceive in our loudmouth, Twitter-dee and Twitter-dum era, but in the past American statesmen and polemicists labored to refine the precision and beauty of their language. Eloquence and clarity were once, for politicians, what an attention-getting TV persona is today — almost everything.

Here, in short, is one more measure of the miniaturization of public life in our time.

“Infamy,” you see, did not come to Roosevelt immediately. At FDR’s presidential library in upstate New York, you can examine the typescript of the first draft of his war message, which he dictated to a secretary the evening of Dec. 7. The first sentence pronounces that fateful Sunday “a date which will live in world history.”

The words “world history” are crossed out with a pencil stroke, and above them is handwritten “infamy.”

Roosevelt made the change himself, along with several trivial tweaks, later that evening, and may not have known right away what a difference it made. His original phrasing, after all, would have been accurate enough.

But the passion and poetry of declaring a “day of infamy” is what made Roosevelt’s address itself live on in … well, world history.

It also served the practical statecraft needs of the moment. FDR led an ambivalent nation in 1941, one long hesitant to enter World War II. Woodrow Wilson had led America into the First World War with missionary zeal — we would “make the world safe for democracy.” Roosevelt knew Americans now needed a less visionary, more visceral motive.

An enemy’s dastardly sneak attack — its infamy, in a word — was just the thing.

At a much different moment, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson had sought to rally rebellious colonists around a set of lofty philosophical principles. The Continental Congress put the 33-year-old on a committee assigned to draft a “declaration of independence” because he was known as a graceful writer. The committee’s then-more-prestigious members included Ben Franklin and John Adams.

In his first draft of what was to become an affirmation for the ages, Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal … .”

Destined for immortality even in that version, Jefferson’s flourish was soon uncannily improved, rather like Roosevelt’s, with a single, unforgettable word choice. Scholars generally believe it was Franklin — though some contend it was Jefferson himself — who soon replaced “sacred and undeniable” with “self-evident.”

It is a striking, uncommon compound adjective, almost impossible now to use in any other context. More than the pedestrian “undeniable,” declaring truths “self-evident” challenges any honest mind to explain how one could fail to perceive essential human equality of rights.

Self-evidence also involves a claim that moral truth is natural, apparent to human reason. It’s a more secular and rationalistic notion than “sacredness” — more suitable for Enlightenment thinkers like America’s founders.

And yet, in another change from the first draft the authors added the claim that human beings’ rights were “endowed by their Creator.” This more explicit religious image seems to reflect a concern for maintaining balance in their revolution’s philosophical foundation.

Abraham Lincoln was not only the best wordsmith among American presidents, but one of the finest writers of any kind America has ever produced. He possessed “a clarity of statement that was itself an argument,” said one fellow lawyer. And he “knew the value of revision” wrote Douglas L. Wilson in “Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words.” Lincoln also had the great gift of being able to accept sound advice and skillful editing when he received it.

On several occasions he received both from his brilliant secretary of state, William Seward. On Thanksgiving Day, these pages reprinted a Washington Post commentary by Ted Widmer, describing Seward’s and Lincoln’s collaboration on the first Thanksgiving proclamation and noting Seward’s other contributions, including on Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

Fact is, Seward’s virtual rewrite of that powerful speech may be the single greatest achievement in “revisionist history.”

Little known when he took office in 1861, and confronted with a full-blown insurrection, Lincoln had two goals with his inaugural address. He had to show he was tough enough to deal forcefully with the South’s secession, and he had to show that his was the more reasonable side of the dispute.

His first draft focused on toughness. “The tone,” Wilson writes, “is unmistakable — firm and forceful ... [t]here is little that could be called conciliatory.” Lincoln called violence in support of secession “treasonable” and ended the draft speech by throwing down a gauntlet: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war … . Shall it be peace, or a sword?”

Seward urged the new president to adopt a much gentler tone “to soothe the public mind.” He recommended no fewer than 50 separate modifications, Wilson writes, transforming Lincoln’s “no-nonsense” stare-down into “almost a model of conciliation.”

Lincoln resisted at first, but in the end accepted nearly all of Seward’s suggestions. The beautiful conclusion of the speech is a model of collaboration as well as of conciliation.

Seward suggested a whole new ending, addressed to the Southern people. He drafted a heartfelt but somewhat awkward reverie about Americans being not “aliens” but “brethren” — about “mystic chords” restoring the nation’s harmony with help from “the guardian angel of the nation.”

Lincoln, now fully embracing the soothing sentiment, turned Seward’s prose into poetry:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. … The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every … patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Amazed by what political leadership once looked like, and in the presence of this sort of writing (and editing) — the prudent columnist simply falls silent.


D.J. Tice is at