Inventing America

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1262

Gary Wills has been a fairly active author over the past few years if one considers his Nixon Agonistes, random articles, and now this work on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. While Wills has earned something of a reputation for promoting novel viewpoints, this most recent work may be his most noteworthy endeavor.

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One of the more significant assests of Inventing America—and there are several—lies in its invitation to see the Declaration of Independence within the context of its time. It would appear that Wills is particularly concerned that documents such as Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence have become merely historical monuments to be revered but not necessarily appreciated for intent. As such, Wills attempts here to ferret out not only Jefferson’s essential influences in writing the document, but also his creative purpose. While considerable controversy may be stirred by Wills’s conclusions, his willingness to analyze the contents is admirable.

In many respects, the Declaration of Independence can best be viewed as a product of the Enlightenment. The document was shaped for a new and emerging society that vastly contradicted the major thrust of Western civilization by the 1700’s. Prior to that time, much of the Western world had functioned along classic conservative lines which espoused the doctrine of “collective man.” The underpinnings of the Western world had been the existence of a social hierarchy built by birthright, primogeniture, the dynastic principle, and the acceptance of one’s fate as “God’s Will.” With this social hierarchy had come divine right absolute monarchies (particularly on the continent of Europe), state-supported (or at least favored) churches, an economic system which primarily served the interest of the state, and the nation-state itself. Under such a format, the individual in society was felt to have duties and obligations but not necessarily rights and privileges. The individual’s talents, ambitions, and creativity were subservient to the loyalties one must show to crown, church, and nation.

The Enlightenment philosophes were essentially a reaction against such an order. Through scientific observation and the use of rational logic, they dissected society by the usage of no more an elaborate yardstick than nature. To Enlightenment thinkers, nature manifested the inherent perfection of the universe, and, as such, was the logical device whereby the value of any manmade structure could be measured. In short, the more “natural” a component of society proved to be, the greater evidence of its worth. For the philosophes, artificiality was not only the antithesis of perfection, but a virtual indictment, and nature dictated a substantial reexamination of society and its accepted systems. Such examination revealed to the philosophes a considerable deviation from nature and invited them to fashion a viable alternative.

That alternative turned out to be classic liberalism, although during the 1700’s it was largely a theory built upon what the philosophes felt ought to be rather than what actually existed. Grounded in the notion that, on nature’s terms at least, all men are created equal, classic liberalism reversed society’s emphasis upon the good of the whole. In its place came the celebration of the individual as being endowed with tremendous capacities for self-development.

To the proponents of classic liberalism, each individual had the natural right to realize his potential. Furthermore, it was considered to be the highest responsibility of government to insure that this right was not infringed upon. Beyond this, however, nature guaranteed very little. The natural interaction of men and their environment would determine a “meritocracy,” and those who failed to achieve would, in effect, have no one to blame but themselves.

Of course, the Enlightenment’s promotion of the individual in keeping with nature’s dictates was in no way an espousal of democracy. The philosophes saw in democracy an artificial, mass-oriented ideology which once again assured the public of influence which had not been earned. While democracy certainly was more humanitarian in its concern for the general public than classic conservativism, the philosophes felt that both ideologies suffered from a similar artificiality of guaranteed determinations.

In certain respects, one might say that Thomas Jefferson was the closest figure America had to the Enlightenment philosophes of Europe. His familiarity with Enlightenment concepts was evident in many areas, including his vision of a governmental form limited in its socioeconomic role. More particularly, Jefferson’s Enlightenment ideals become evident in his primary justification for Americans seeking independence: the belief that Britain had violated the “natural rights” of Americans.

What distinguishes Jefferson from the purely liberal philosophes of the Enlightenment are his democratic impulses. He did not suffer from the same reservations concerning the masses of society that plagued the liberal intellects of France and England. It was Jefferson’s perspective, perhaps aided by the potential possibilities of the American physical landscape, that saw the inherent weakness in classic liberalism. The liability can be summarized by the question of what is to be done with the losers. Even under an atmosphere in which classic liberalism prospers, there would remain a permanent segment of the society to whom nature would be less than kind.

Wills can be commended for his attention to those more democratic ideas of Jefferson which surfaced in his rough drafts of the original Declaration of Independence, but fell short in the chambers of practical politics. Wills is not particularly concerned here with the Declaration of Independence as a vehicle for justifying independence from Britain. Rather, the author’s intention is to come to grips with what actually amounts to three documents: Jefferson’s original undeleted version, the more practical and genuine Congressional form, and the “symbolic” document which lives today as an ideal of the American political culture.

Understandably, Wills points to Jefferson’s original draft as the version most revealing of Jefferson’s own creativity. That this Declaration of Independence is periodically at variance with the ideological thrust of John Locke and the classic liberal Enlightenment is not only unsurprising, but implicit evidence for its being edited by the tamer minds of the Continental Congress.

What is surprising is Wills’s dismay at the Declaration of Independence in its present form: a mere statuesque symbol which Americans revere as a cherished component of our heritage rather than as a practical guide to political reality. That American citizens are not accustomed to analyzing the Declaration of Independence for its political intent may be regrettable, but it is hardly a revelation to anyone even remotely observant of American political culture. Studies have long indicated Americans to be among the lowest in Western democratic societies in terms of voter turnout and familiarity with political and governmental species; at best, they are often merely tolerant of politics as a necessary evil.

More valuable, however, is Wills’s invitation to treat the Declaration of Independence as a concrete entity rather than as an unapproachable political Ten Commandments. To see the document put on public display for altar worship as was the case during the Red Scare of 1919-1921, is, in Wills’s mind, detrimental to its greater worth as a signpost for American society. While a case can be made, as the author does, for the influence of Scottish philosophes upon Jefferson’s thinking, the larger point may be missed. Wills seems intent upon dismantling the Declaration of Independence for analysis, and he becomes, in the process, something of a political mechanic anxious to discover what makes the system tick. His findings have led to the rationale for this book, but he may have hampered his larger goal by diffusing the honored veneer of the document itself.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23

Best Sellers. XXXVIII, November, 1978, p. 259.

Commonweal. CV, October 27, 1978, p. 691.

New Republic. CLXXIX, August 26, 1978, p. 32.

Saturday Review. V, August, 1978, p. 42.

Time. CXII, July 31, 1978, p. 78.

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