American scripture: making the Declaration of Independence
Pauline Maier shows us the Declaration as both the defining statement of our national identity and the moral standard by which we live as a nation. It is truly "American Scripture," and Maier tells us how it came to be -- from the Declaration's birth in the hard and tortuous struggle by which Americans arrived at Independence to the ways in which, in the nineteenth century, the document itself became sanctified.
Maier describes the transformation of the Second Continental Congress into a national government, unlike anything that preceded or followed it, and with more authority than the colonists would ever have conceded to the British Parliament; the great difficulty in making the decision for Independence; the influence of Paine's Common Sense, which shifted the terms of debate; and the political maneuvers that allowed Congress to make the momentous decision.
In Maier's hands, the Declaration of Independence is brought close to us. She lets us hear the voice of the people as revealed in the other "declarations" of 1776: the local resolutions -- most of which have gone unnoticed over the past two centuries -- that explained, advocated, and justified Independence and undergirded Congress's work. Detective-like, she discloses the origins of key ideas and phrases in the Declaration and unravels the complex story of its drafting and of the group-editing job which angered Thomas Jefferson.
Maier also reveals what happened to the Declaration after the signing and celebration: how it was largely forgotten and then revived to buttress political arguments of the nineteenth century; and, most important, how Abraham Lincoln ensured its persistence as a living force in American society. Finally, she shows how by the very act of venerating the Declaration as we do -- by holding it as sacrosanct, akin to holy writ -- we may actually be betraying its purpose and its power.
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The Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and started the Revolutionary War, right?
Wrong. The shooting actually started more than a year before it was written. The document was basically high-toned trash talk to King George II. It was a marketing piece, meant to get "the opinions of mankind" on the colonists' side.
And Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, right?
Wrong. Old Tom wrote the first complete draft. In fact, he used an 18th century cut-and-paste approach, he recycled a lot of stuff he had already written for the Virginia colonial assembly and he cherry-picked other sources. The Second Continental Congress made significant, often politically motivated revisions to the first draft.
This detail and much more fascinating history about the Declaration is offered in Dr. Pauline Maier's book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.
The Second Continental Congress intended the Declaration to explain and help justify the decision to end the regime of King George in the North American colonies. The delegates had no expressed desire to lay down principles to guide and limit the new American government.
A complete reading of the Declaration now is a powerful experience, but it's a very narrow lesson in American politics. The Declaration is mostly a list of complaints. It's a recitation of the circumstances that preceded and caused the revolutionary work of the Second Continental Congress. It's an excuse for the rebellion, done almost after the fact.
The Declaration is not a prescription for government, it's not a philosophy of government, it's not a political theory, it's not a codification of law and it's not a statement of policy. It's regrettable that Americans do not have a deeply ingrained reluctance to cite or interpret the Declaration without first re-reading it to refresh their understanding of its rather limited nature.
The dramatic and iconic power of a few words in the Declaration is undeniable: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal…" Nevertheless, Maier shows that the delegates to the Second Continental Congress never agreed that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights (the dispute about slavery was largely ignored). The delegates used stock phrases ("life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") from English political theory, with no explicit agreement on how to realize them in the American colonies.
The men who helped usher in the Revolution never troubled themselves to even remotely consider how "the governed" could realistically give their consent to the "just powers" of government (universal suffrage was not even a talking point in the late 18th century in North America). The Declaration is a bona fide icon in American history, but it's not a prescriptive model for government or our political heritage. As a "workaday document of the Second Continental Congress," it served its purpose—to put King George's transgressions in the limelight—and then was almost forgotten.
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The Other Declarations
Mr Jefferson and His Editors
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