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.
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.
(The entire section is 1,285 words.)