American Scripture

by Pauline Maier
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2070

 

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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, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston of New York. The committee in turn delegated the writing of the first draft to Jefferson, although in later years Adams would recall that he was asked to share that task but declined primarily because “I had a great Opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own.” In a matter of only a few days, Jefferson prepared his draft, Adams and Franklin made some editorial changes, and the result was submitted to Congress.

Maier notes that in the eighteenth century, educated people regarded with disdain the striving for novelty, which today is often valued as the sign of intellectual brilliance. In Jefferson’s day, “[a]chievement lay instead in the creative adaptation of preexisting models to different circumstances, and the highest praise of all went to imitations whose excellence exceeded that of the examples that inspired them.” Many years later, Jefferson would tell James Madison that in drafting the Declaration he “did not consider it part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before.” Whether he had gathered his ideas from reading or reflection, Jefferson said, “I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it.”

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What Jefferson did have before him were two texts: his own draft of the preamble for the proposed Virginia Constitution and a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason, which had been published in the Pennsylvania Gazette the very day the Committee of Five was appointed. Students of the Declaration know that Jefferson borrowed heavily from Mason’s work. Maier readily acknowledges Mason’s offstage contribution. She presents a careful textual analysis of how, in Jefferson’s hands, Mason’s Declaration of Rights became the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and how Jefferson’s own preamble to the Virginia Constitution became the catalog of accusations against King George in the body of the Declaration. She includes a “Family Tree” of the Declaration that graphically demonstrates the genealogy of its most memorable words.

Given the transcendent place Jefferson holds in American history, Congress’s role in creating the Declaration of Independence is often ignored. Maier is intent on filling that gap. She remarks that the Committee of Five produced “a workable draft” that “the Congress itself, sitting as the Committee of the Whole, made into a distinguished document by an act of group editing that has to be one of the great marvels of history.” Maier includes a helpful appendix in which she reproduces Jefferson’s draft overlaid with Congress’s changes.

The graphic juxtaposition of Jefferson’s draft and Congress’s final version hardly supports Maier’s hyperbolic view that Congress’s editing was “one of the great marvels of history.” As far as the preamble to the Declaration is concerned (“When in the course of human events . . .”; “We hold these truths to be self- evident . . .”), Congress made only a few minor changes. Of twenty-eight lines, Congress deleted only three.

Congress exercised greater editorial discretion when it came to the lengthy bill of particulars against King George. Seven of Jefferson’s thirty-one original charges were deleted or altered substantially. Of approximately one hundred lines of text, Congress struck about forty. The most significant deletion—Jefferson’s long passage condemning King George’s attempt to turn American slaves against their masters—hardly qualifies as “one of the great marvels of history,” because it was done for the ignominious purpose of avoiding criticism for the persistence of slavery and the hypocrisy of declaring that “all men are created equal.” Finally, Congress considerably edited the concluding paragraph of the Declaration, adding several lines and removing redundancies and awkward phrases that suggest that Jefferson had grown weary at the end of his task.

The final section of American Scripture is devoted to an appraisal of the “remaking” of the Declaration. The Declaration seldom was read publicly in the period immediately following its adoption. Abroad, the first numbered provision of the French Declaration of Rights, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” echoed George Mason’s language, not the Declaration.

Maier traces the growth of the Declaration’s reputation and its ascendancy to a “sacred” text. By 1826, one observer noted that “everything connected” with the Declaration of Independence “excites deep and acute interest.” The Declaration’s twin themes of opposing tyranny and upholding equality provided welcome sustenance and support to groups ranging from workers to farmers to women’s rights advocates. In 1848, the delegates to the women’s Seneca Falls Convention declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.”

Maier pays special attention to the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence. In 1854, Lincoln said that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Maier writes that Lincoln’s “understanding of the document became in time that of the nation.” During Lincoln’s famous debates with Illinois senator Stephen Douglas in 1858, Douglas asserted that the equality articulated in the Declaration was between American colonists and British subjects in Great Britain. He assured audiences that the signers were not thinking of “the negro or . . . savage Indians, or the Feegee, or the Malay, or any other inferior or degraded race.” Lincoln countered that Douglas’s argument was a “mere wreck,” a “mangled ruin” of the Declaration, whose “plain, unmistakable language said all men” were created equal, which meant “there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” Because the Declaration affirmed that government derived its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” to govern another man without his consent was “despotism.”

As Lincoln equated the Declaration with its affirmation of “equality,” Southern secessionists seized on its “revolutionary” message guaranteeing to each generation the right to alter or abolish any form of government destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Union prevailed, and with it Lincoln’s vision of the Declaration, as Maier puts it, “binding one generation after another in a continuing act of national self-definition.”

American Scripture advances knowledge of the creation and re-creation of the Declaration of Independence as an expression of American political thought, but the book is not without its flaws. The incredible level of detail on the state and local resolutions and instructions may cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over, and Maier’s exhaustive comparisons of Jefferson’s various drafts slow the momentum of her narrative argument. The book also is somewhat disjointed, returning to Jefferson in fits and starts and displaying the genealogy of the Declaration some sixty pages after the subject is first discussed. Finally, except for a brief epilogue, Maier abruptly ends her survey of the remaking of the Declaration at the Civil War. What has the Declaration meant to us in the last 130 years?

Despite these faults, Maier has thoughtfully told the story of the making and remaking of the Declaration from the Revolution to the Civil War. Given the depth of her scholarship and the breadth of her storytelling, readers would be well rewarded were Maier to continue the tale of the maturing of the Declaration of Independence into the twentieth century and beyond.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXXV, November, 1997, p. 549.

Commentary. CIV, October, 1997, p. 62.

The Economist. CCCXLIV, December 6, 1997, p. 95.

Library Journal. CXXII, June 1, 1997, p. 114.

National Review. XLIX, September 15, 1997, p. 76.

The New Leader. LXXX, September 22, 1997, p. 18.

The New Republic. CCXVI, June 30, 1997, p. 34.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, August 14, 1997, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, July 6, 1997, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, June 2, 1997, p. 59.

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