American scripture : making the Declaration of Independence

by Pauline Maier

Hardcover, 1997




New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, Inc., 1997.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lahochstetler
If you're looking for a great book on the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the clear choice is Pauline Maier's American Scripture. Maier begins with a travel narrative of sorts, explaining what an early American historian sees when she visits the National Archives, and observes hundreds of tourists waiting to view the document. No other significant document in the history of the United States, she notices, seems to create as much reverence, excitement, and patriotism as the Declaration. While the viewers don't necessarily have all of the history under exact command, they have great respect for the document. How the document came to be, and how it developed such popular acclaim become the subjects of the rest of Maier's book. This book truly is a history of the writing of the Declaration. Maier examines the documents that preceded that of July 4, 1776. She finds that in the months preceding July 1776 localities drafted their own declarations, mini-declarations, declaring the cessation of their allegiance to George III and Parliament. These mini-declarations formed the linguistic and stylistic basis for the national declaration. Producing the American Declaration of Independence was a task that fell to a committee of five, which included Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams. The lion's share of the credit for drafting the Declaration is usually accorded to Jefferson, but Maier finds that the committee of five, particularly Adams, was far more influential than previously thought. Ultimately Maier's book is carefully researched and well-crafted. It is beautifully written, and a joy to read. For those who teach American history, as I do, it is an excellent resource to use in an advanced undergraduate class to discuss how to do research and how to write history. I read this book my first year of graduate school and have relied on it heavily ever since.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
Well-written and useful in discussing the origins and composition of the Declaration.
LibraryThing member Jarratt
I desperately wanted to like this book. I'm a huge fan of our Founding Fathers, the American Revolution, and its associated documents. And even though "American Scripture" weighs in at only 200 pages, it's way too detailed and, quite frankly, redundant.

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.
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LibraryThing member rsubber
This is a very readable book that exposes the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson isn't the primary author. The Second Continental Congress substantially re-worked Jefferson's draft. The Declaration didn't "start" the American Revolution. It wasn't the "kickoff" event, it was more like a final formality to officially authorize the colonial rebellion which had been evolving for years and which had already been the subject of a shooting war for more than a year.
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.
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