American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
by Pauline Maier
Knopf. 304 pp. $27.50
On a hot July afternoon several years ago, Pauline Maier, a professor of history at MIT, took a break from an academic conference in Washington and set out for the National Archives, curious to see the aging sheets of parchment with which Americans declared independence in 1776 and, more than a decade later, established a national government. What she found there deeply distressed her. The “Charters of Freedom,” as the famed documents are labeled, occupy a massive, self-proclaimed “Shrine” of bulletproof glass and bronze. The structure, Maier observes in her new book,
resembles the awesome, gilded, pre-Vatdcan II altars of my Catholic girlhood, raised three steps above where the worshippers assembled. The Declaration is its centerpiece, held above the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in what looks like a tabernacle, or perhaps a monstrance, the device used to display the host on special days of adoration.
Such reverence, she believes, has no place in our attitudes toward the American past, least of all toward the Declaration of Independence, whose red-white-and-blue bunting she aims to strip away in American Scripture. Where the naive Fourth-of-July celebrant sees towering heroes, deeds without precedent, and a “sacred text” containing philosophical insights of astonishing originality, Maier finds the intransigent complexity and continuity of history. The standard account of the Declaration’s making, she argues, consists overwhelmingly of myths conceived long after the events of 1776.
For Maier, putting 1776 in its proper context means, above all, cutting Thomas Jefferson down to size. The Declaration of Independence, she reminds us, did not spring fully formed from the Virginian’s head in a few hours of inspired composition. In form and tone, its pedigree was English, pointing unmistakably to the Declaration of Rights of 1689, by which Parliament asserted its claims against the crown in the Glorious Revolution. As for content, Jefferson adapted freely from two newly drafted Virginia documents, his own preamble for the state constitution and George Mason’s influential Declaration of Rights.
Jefferson not only had models to imitate, says Maier, but capable editors to see that he imitated them well. The members of the Continental Congress rolled up their sleeves on July 2 and for three days pored over the draft Declaration, sharpening the prose, adding the occasional phrase, and, most of all, eliminating “Jefferson’s more outlandish assertions and unnecessary words.” They decided, for instance, that the British monarch’s “injuries and usurpations” were not so much “unremitting” as “repeated,” and that breaking from the mother country demanded an appeal “to the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” The long passages that they sensibly deleted, amounting to a full quarter of Jefferson’s original text, asserted, among other things, that the colonists had settled America “unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain,” and that George III, of all people, bore primary responsibility for the continuation of the slave trade.
In publicly committing themselves to independence, Maier shows, Jefferson and his colleagues were not alone among their countrymen, or even first. In the spring and early summer of 1776, scores of colonial legislatures, localities, and other groups—again, looking to English precedents—solemnly proclaimed their grievances against the metropole and endorsed a separation. These texts, several of which Maier reproduces in an appendix, show the homelier, more concrete terms in which “ordinary and frequently uneducated people”—Massachusetts townsfolk, Virginia freeholders, New York mechanics, Pennsylvania militiamen—justified their momentous decision. Though crucial at the time in giving the Continental Congress much-needed political cover, most of these grass-roots manifestos, she laments, “have been forgotten under the influence of our national obsession with ‘the’ Declaration of Independence.”
“The” Declaration’s lasting appeal, Maier recognizes, rests overwhelmingly on the grand philosophical language of its second paragraph. Indeed, to the extent that Americans still know the Declaration, it is because they recall its ringing invocation of the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Here Maier is quick to credit Jefferson’s eloquence. But she no less quickly qualifies his achievement. The ideas themselves were “absolutely conventional among Americans of his time,” a distillation of Locke, Milton, Algernon Sidney, and other writers in the Whig pantheon. Moreover, in 1776 no one paid much attention to the Declaration’s speculative preliminaries. The real interest lay in their practical upshot: “the right of revolution” that Americans were then so busily exercising.
In fact, according to Maier, the Declaration slipped into obscurity soon after it had served that practical purpose. Only in the 1790’s, with Jefferson’s founding of the Republican party to combat what he saw as an incipient Federalist aristocracy, did the Declaration begin to assume its familiar role as an egalitarian creed. For the first time, recitation of the “deathless instrument” of the “immortal Jefferson,” as one Republican partisan christened it, became a regular feature of Independence Day festivities.
Several generations later, Abraham Lincoln would complete the process, offering up “[a]ll honor to Jefferson” and proclaiming the proposition that “all men are created equal” nothing less than “a standard maxim” for all humankind. Thus it was that the Declaration, having started out as a brief for revolution against an established regime, became transformed into “a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the nation could be judged.” In a supreme irony, a philosophical digression had become the document’s essence.
The point of this involved tale, as Maier would have it, is to explode the idea that the Declaration was some sort of epiphany, a world-historical moment presided over by a demigod. As she writes on the final page of the book, turning again to the shrine at the National Archives:
Why should the American people file by, looking up reverentially at a document that was and is their creation, as if it were handed down by God or were the work of superhuman men whose talents far exceeded those of any who followed them?
The problem is that, despite Maier’s own certainty in rejecting such misplaced awe, American Scripture actually provides ample evidence for the traditional view of the Declaration.
Take the central issue: Jefferson’s role in writing the Declaration. Was he the author or, as she calls him, merely a “draftsman”? Looking at the annotated Declaration that Maier usefully includes at the back of the book, one cannot help being struck by the Continental Congress’s restrained use of the red quill. Granted, the final version is shorter than Jefferson’s original and contains a few words that were not of his choosing; such are the ways of editors. The Declaration still shines through as Jefferson’s rhetorical masterpiece.
Though Maier claims that she “bear[s] no animus” toward Jefferson, she says it like someone forced to kill in the service of a just cause. In this case, the cause would seem to be a notion of history that has no room for men of genius. The making of the Declaration, Maier insists, has been “a collective act,” an ongoing national spectacle with a “cast” of millions. In some sense, no doubt, this is true. But the cast has had its stars—and they deserve top billing.1
Giving Jefferson his due as a wordsmith does not make him the originator of the ideas that he articulated so powerfully. To a large extent, these were indeed, as Maier argues, philosophical commonplaces of the day. Jefferson himself never suggested otherwise, however. As he wrote in a celebrated letter that she quotes, the Declaration was meant to be “an expression of the American mind.”
Unfortunately, Maier is determined to challenge American exceptionalism no less than Jefferson’s, and thus fails to see just how singular a national mind it was. Americans in 1776 were not engaged in a transatlantic reprise of the Glorious Revolution. Yes, the English had their Declaration too. But, as Maier concedes, it was the work of a Parliament dominated by the gentry; its aim was to limit a still-powerful monarchy; and its justification extended no further than reestablishing the recognized laws and liberties of Englishmen.
What set the American Declaration apart was the idea of human equality—of natural rights—which Maier labors to relegate to an afterthought. Unlike their British counterparts of a century before, the American revolutionaries were unambiguously committed to popular consent as the essential test of political legitimacy. How else to explain the democratic ferment for independence that Maier herself so ably describes? How else to explain the irresistible expectation on the part of Americans that their new governments would be republican? Maier’s repeated assertions to the contrary cannot change the fact that in his preamble, Jefferson gave breath and blood to an abstraction that Americans themselves saw as the basis of both the “right of revolution” and, looking ahead to the fruits of independence, just government.
Jefferson’s energetic editors could easily have cast off the preamble as just so much excess verbiage. What natural equality required in practice was, after all, a matter of great controversy, not least for those who somehow thought it compatible with the institution of slavery. It remains a matter of great controversy today. But the members of the Continental Congress, like the people they represented, understood that their parochial struggle gained meaning and dignity from its attachment to a wider human cause. More than two centuries later, it is hard to disagree with them, or to suppress a proper sense of veneration before the American scripture that embodies this profound wisdom.
1 For an outstanding recent account of a great statesman’s role in creating another of our “Charters of Freedom,” see Robert A. Goldwin, From Parchment to Power: How James Madison Used the Bill of Rights to Save the Constitution. AEI Press, 213 pp., $24.95.