Study Guide

American Scripture

by Pauline Maier

American Scripture Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

 

On April 23, 1776, several months before adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress, William Henry Drayton, the chief justice of South Carolina, converted the opening of the Court of General Sessions in Charlestown into a historic event. He ended his routine charge to the grand jury by taking it upon himself to declare South Carolina independent of Great Britain. As if that were not enough, he spread on the record a “catalogue of . . . oppressions” that the colonists had suffered at the hands of King George: “Nature cried aloud, self-preservation is the great law; we have but obeyed.”

Drayton’s “declaration of independence” was but one of almost one hundred resolutions and instructions issued between April and July of 1776 by various states, counties, towns, grand juries, and private and quasi-public groups enumerating the grievous injuries visited upon the American colonies and calling for independence from Britain. Pauline Maier, in her ambitious work American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, calls these state and local declarations of independence “the voice of the people” and credits them as the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence itself.

Maier’s authoritative work sets out to recast understanding of the Declaration by elevating the importance of these “other” declarations of independence, exploring the role Congress played in crafting the Declaration and reevaluating Thomas Jefferson’s status as the “author” of the Declaration. Maier marshals her prodigious scholarship to advance her thesis that the Declaration was not a document written only by Jefferson to express the lofty political theories of the Enlightenment, but was instead a collaborative effort of people inside and outside the Continental Congress expressing ideas and complaints long held throughout the colonies, with Jefferson serving as but the skilled scrivener. Maier’s other purpose is to explore the life of the Declaration in postrevolutionary America, what she calls the “remaking” of the Declaration “into the document most Americans know, remember, and revere.”

To Maier, who is William R. Kennan, Jr., professor of American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Declaration was not a “solo performance” or even “a performance of chamber music with a handful of players,” but rather more like an orchestral production. She openly dissents

from any suggestion that Jefferson was alone responsible for the Declaration of Independence, or that the document most worth studying and admiring is his draft, or that the full story of the Declaration can be told apart from that of the Independence it declared and the process that led to it.

Maier’s views deserve attention because of the wealth of information and documentation she brings to her subject. The author of From Resistance to Revolution and The Old Revolutionaries, Maier has unearthed “other” declarations of independence from across the colonies and spends considerable space analyzing their revolutionary ideas and language. Each of these documents is identified in a comprehensive appendix. She also includes a sampling of six resolutions from Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts. It is thrilling to read the words written by people who, in the throes of a bloody revolution, paused to express their reasons for demanding independence.

These resolutions presage some of the very words and cadence for which Jefferson would be given credit. Where the Freeholders of Buckingham County, Virginia, stated that they were “[a]ctuated by a warm and sincere regard for the interests and rights of mankind . . . ; and are willing, therefore to submit our opinions to the candid judgment of the publick,” Jefferson would later write that when it becomes necessary for one people to sever their ties with another, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”; “to prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world.” Those same Freeholders declared their

power to choose what Government we please for our civil and religious happiness; and when that becomes defective, or deviates from the end of its institution, and cannot be corrected, that the people may form themselves into another, avoiding the defects of the former.

Jefferson would later write “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government. . . .”

Despite Maier’s desire to correct the impression that Jefferson was the “author” of the Declaration (as it says on his tombstone), she knows full well that her story cannot be told to the exclusion of Jefferson. She devotes a lengthy and illuminating portion of her book to Jefferson’s work on the Declaration. On June 12, 1776, five men were appointed to the drafting committee: Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin,...

(The entire section is 2070 words.)