Historian Maier shows us the Declaration as both the defining statement of our national identity and the moral standard by which we live as a nation. It is truly "American Scripture," and Maier tells us how it came to be. She describes the transformation of the Second Continental Congress into a national government, unlike anything that preceded or followed it. She lets us hear the voice of the people as revealed in other "declarations" of 1776. Detective-like, she discloses the origins of key ideas and phrases in the Declaration and unravels the complex story of its drafting and of the group-editing job which angered Thomas Jefferson. She also reveals what happened after the signing and celebration: how it was largely forgotten and then revived to buttress political arguments of the nineteenth century; and how Abraham Lincoln ensured its persistence as a living force in American society.--From publisher description.
Most interesting to me: much of the stirring prose in the Declaration had already been written in various forms by Jefferson and others in the multitude of documents approved locally throughout the colonies, expressing the colonials' increasing frustration with the failure of their efforts to negotiate a suitable accommodation with the King and his ministers and Parliament. There was persistent strong support throughout the colonies for remaining within the empire as long as American self-government could be sustained.
Finally, there is Maier's take on the Declaration as a late blooming "American Scripture." This is her description of the 19th century politicians' cumulative (and heedlessly incorrect) re-interpretation of the Declaration as a statement of governing principles and a blueprint for American political values and American democracy. Maier has made a plain case that the Declaration was intended only to demonstrate why the actions and disdain of King George had made American rebellion necessary and unavoidable.
My note for the serious reader: for my taste, Chapter 4 incongruously seems to stray into anecdotal commentary on various interpretations by Abraham Lincoln and others. I understand the imputed relevance, but this section of American Scripture seemed to be casually written and insufficiently edited.
The second chapter is about the "other" declarations—those documents developed by the colonies showing support for independence and how George III had wronged them. The basic information was fine; it's just that Ms. Maier would offer multiple, repetitive examples to the point of beating a dead horse.
I got through that second chapter and into Jefferson's iterations about the Declaration's development, but at that point, lost interest with her very academic style.
That document, of course, was the Declaration of Independence. As a statement of the reasons the colonies were seeking independence, it served as a bill of charges that justified the extraordinary actions the revolutionaries undertook. With the Revolution won the generations that followed came to revere the Declaration as a statement of the values on which the new republic was based. Yet as Pauline Maier shows, such veneration has had the effect of reshaping the role of the Declaration in ways unimagined by the people who signed it. Her book demonstrates this by deconstructing the process that created the Declaration and examining how it subsequently gained the iconic status it enjoys today.
As Maier notes, the revolutionaries approached the act of declaring independence cautiously. Even after the outbreak of fighting against British troops, many of the members of the Continental Congress balked at the prospect of declaring independence. Some delegates balked at the idea of separation from the British empire and the risks such a move entailed, while others felt constrained by their instructions from their state’s legislatures, which did not authorize such a step. Moreover, the question of declaring independence was just one of the many war-related issues before a heavily burdened body, some of which were of greater urgency. Because of this, it wasn’t until April 1776 – a full year after the outbreak of fighting between colonial forces and British troops – that the Continental Congress committed to pursuing independence.
The Congress assigned the task of drafting the declaration to a five-person committee. Though the committee left no minutes of its proceedings, Maier sifts through the participants’ (oftentimes contradictory) recollections and the surviving documentary record to detail the process. Thomas Jefferson is naturally at the center of her narrative, as breaks down his work to show the elements that reflected its inheritance from similar English and colonial declarations of rights. Yet while giving Jefferson due credit for his role, she also describes the contributions made, by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others in the Continental Congress, who took Jefferson’s hastily-assembled draft and edited to down into the final document with which we are familiar. In the process she makes a convincing case for the Declaration as having improved on the product of Jefferson’s pen.
Once it was signed the Declaration was disseminated quickly throughout the rebelling colonies. Though it was preceded by some of the declarations issued by individual states, localities, and other groups, Maier sees its influence in the ones issued from that point onward. By the end of the war, however, the Declaration virtually disappeared from the discourse as Americans focused on the challenges of building a new nation. This changed with the rise of party politics in the 1790s, as Jefferson’s supporters began celebrating the document as the product of his genius. The stature of the Declaration grew as a new generation of Americans began to revere the revolutionary generation and its achievements. Among their number was Abraham Lincoln, whom Maier credits with doing more than any other single person to empower the Declaration as a document defining the nation’s principles, giving it its continuing relevancy for Americans down to the present day.
Meier recounts all of this in a deftly-written text is easily accessible for the general reader. It’s an outstanding work of scholarship, and all the more so for the modesty of her claims. While she acknowledges her debt to Carl Becker’s classicThe Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas and disclaims any intention of duplicating his work, she builds nicely upon it to offer a fuller understanding of the document and its legacy. It makes for a book that joins Becker’s work as essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the Declaration and why it continues to matter today.