"From one of America's foremost historians, Inventing America compares Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence with the final, accepted version, thereby challenging many long-cherished assumptions about both the man and the document. Although Jefferson has long been idealized as a champion of individual rights, Wills argues that in fact his vision was one in which interdependence, not self-interest, lay at the foundation of society."--BOOK COVER.
Wills’s second aim, therefore, is to decipher those beliefs and intentions and to recover what he believes to be the lost truth about Jefferson’s philosophy. Jefferson was not, as so many have believed, a Lockean individualist. The influence of the French Enlightenment is far less important than some have insisted. The Jefferson of the Declaration was, in fact, a close disciple of the Scottish Enlightenment, influenced by Reid, Smith, Hume, and above all by Francis Hutcheson.
On 9 May 1825, Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee about the Declaration that ‘neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.’ It was intended, Jefferson goes on, ‘to place before mankind the common sense of the subject ...’ In the one paragraph which he devotes to this letter, Wills notes the main point that it makes without noticing the bearing of that point on his own project: ‘He is deliberately citing works of general regard, rather than a set of specific influences on him.’ Indeed he is, and he is telling us not to look for the antecedents of the Declaration in ‘specific influences on him’, but in ‘works of general regard’. It is perhaps significant that Wills omits from his quotation the first sentence quoted, since that strengthens the case for holding that Wills’s whole project is misconceived.
Jefferson's draft Declaration was altered before adoption by the Continental Congress; the prevailing notion is the alterations were stylistic improvements merely. Wills examines several reasons to doubt this, reasons we don't understand Jefferson's draft and the changes effected by the revisions. For one thing, we no longer understand the language it's written in (key familiar terms hold different meanings today). And, the vision instilled by Lincoln's Gettysburg Address serves now as a distorting lens. [xxiv] Finally, Congress rejected Jefferson's framework for understanding independence, namely his premise of "expatriation as independence," and so removed explicit references to that framework. The resulting document is mistakenly understood to be Lockean, when at root it was sentimental following Francis Hutcheson.
In addition to a close reading of Jefferson's Declaration and its important departures from the published Congressional document, Wills provides:
1 - Political context leading up to and including the Declaration (corrective to the commonplace "symbolic" meaning of the official Declaration)
2 - A primer on the Scottish Enlightenment and its place in Colonial America (especially the significance of moral sense philosophy)
Wills looks at the political arguments and backroom politicking, but more interesting for me is the intellectual history he brings. Why Jefferson argued for "expatriation as independence" and why he found it important to frame his argument in moral sentiment and science; opposed to Adams and others. Jefferson theorised through expatriation the Colonists broke fundamentally from Britain, broke the "ties of affection" which made us collectively a single people. Our colonial link to Britain came later, when charters were drawn severally to a common King. The later separation ("independence" in conventional wisdom) from Britain occurred in the hearts of men [sic], the Declaration merely acknowledging that fact.  Jefferson's draft rested on this understanding, and since no-one (excepting Geo Whyte) shared it, all explicit reference to it was excised from official document. But: vestigial evidence remains, discernible when read with the eyes of a student of the Scottish Enlightenment. Wills provides those eyes.
A fair question: why bother with Jefferson's draft, and the ideas informing it, if in fact no one else shared his premise for it, neither Loyalist nor Colonial? For me, it comes down to an interest in political culture, historical and contemporary. It is not so much recovering a "lost" education as providing a corrective to a tentative grasp on a superficial and distorted history, instilling in me a new-found interest in U.S. political culture and the events funding it.
Prologue outlines argument in Lincoln at Gettysburg; highlights how Lincoln made politics religious, rather than making a politics of his religion. This reinforced the already present influence of religion on U.S. politics. The danger of idealism, the inherent conservatism of it: conform to this ideal, or you are not a true American.
Of moral sense philosophy:
1 - when did it cease to be a standard?
2 - why did it no longer suffice? (related to internal issues with theory, or external developments in culture?)
3 - was decline linked to secular individualism and Lockean liberalism and Utilitarianism?
Though not a biography of Jefferson, Wills's deep study of the intellectual origins of Jefferson's Declaration moves Jefferson out of the mists of legend so that his ideas and contributions to the foundation of the America state can be properly evaluated.
I think Wills over-reaches a bit in some of his claims about the revolution, for instance too easily rejecting the role of a nascent working class politics in the Revolution,and the idea that some elements of the Constitution are at odds with the Declaration.
But the book remians quite valuable as an expllication of Jefferson's ideas.