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It has sometimes been said, as if it were a derogation from the merits of this paper, that it contains nothing new; that it only states grounds of proceeding and presses topics of argument, which had often been stated and pressed before. But it was not the object of the Declaration to produce any thing new. It was not to invent reasons for independence, but to state those which governed the Congress. For great and sufficient causes, it was proposed to declare independence; and the proper business of the paper to be drawn was to set for th those causes, and justify the authors of the measure, in any event of fortune, to mthe country and to posterity. The cause of American independence, moreover, was now to be presented to the world in such manner; of it might so be, as to engage its sympathy, to command its respect, to attract its admiration; and in an assembly of most able and distinguished men, THOMAS JEFFERSON had the high honor of being the selected advocate of this cause. To say that he performed his great work well, would be doing him an injustice. To say that he did excellently well, admirably well, would be inadequate and halting praise. Let us rather say, that he so discharged the duty assigned him, that all Americans may well rejoice that the work of drawing the title-deed of their liberties devolved upon him...
This book was published to great applause last year and purported to offer a revolutionary (pardon the pun) new interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Let me first say that the author has done a great job of presenting the story of the drafting of the Declaration and the political milieu out of which the action arose and of following its fall and supposed resurrection by Abraham Lincoln.
However, as near as I can determine the following elements of Ms Maier's analysis were considered original:
(1) unlike Carl Becker, whose classic study "The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas" focused on the ideas underlying the declaration, she focuses on the mechanics of the legislative process that produced it;
(2) she reveals that the Declaration did not actually declare our independence, that had been done two days earlier, it explained why independence was declared;
(3) she's discovered that Thomas Jefferson was not the sole author of the text & the ideas therein are not solely his;
(4) in fact, those ideas were so prevalent that there are nearly 100 other Declarations by the Colonies and townships that contain similar sentiments & some are even better written; and
(5) our interpretation of the Declaration differs from that of Jefferson and the men who voted for it.
I'll take these one at a time:
(1) As historians look back, one of, if not the only, notable acts of the Clinton years will be the Welfare Reform Act. It will be viewed as significant because it marks the beginning of the retreat from the New Deal/Great Society Welfare State. This importance is fundamentally intellectual and will be written about as such. But someone will surely also write about how the idea was first tried in Wisconsin and Michigan and how Clinton didn't really support it but felt he had to go along and how some Democrats felt trapped into supporting it, etc. This is the book that Ms Maier has written--it's about sausage making, not a look at the sausage.
(2) This would seem to be a nod to point one. The Declaration is important for its ideas, not for what it physically did.
(3 & 4) This is exactly the point of Becker's book; that there was a rich stew of ideas, familiar to all men of the time, & Jefferson and his fellow drafters and the Congress all drew upon them for the Declaration.
(5) Of course our opinions differ 220+ years later. But isn't the genius of Jefferson and the drafters that they wrote a document that encompasses our evolving views and justifies them still? Isn't it possible that men who owned slaves & withheld the vote from women & the unpropertied rose above themselves & bequeathed us a document that made inevitable the sorts of democratic progress that followed? Isn't that why this document lives & breathes today & why we study it?
I think the reason that Ms Maier misses many of these points is a function of the same ethos that created Picasso, Joyce & Alban Berg--the determination to distance their fields from the average citizen in the same way that science has become distanced through specialization. The Declaration is accessible to all of us & we can read it & determine it's meanings for ourselves. So what historians increasingly do in such situations is delve into the minutiae of the times, & garner information that none of the rest of us will ever see. Then they turn around and use this "secret" knowledge as a key which provides them with the unique background to discover "hidden" meanings in events. This is largely a hoax, in the same way that atonal music or cubism or free association is; we needn't buy into it.
The genius of the Declaration is that it means exactly what it says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by
their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of
happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just
powers from the consent of the governed...
Ms Maier's book is a valuable addition to the scholarship on the Declaration, but is less groundbreaking than the hype suggests.
-REVIEW: Dusting Off the Declaration (NY Review of Books, GORDON S. WOOD)
-C-Span Booknotes (Listen to her Booknotes interview):
-The Newshour: Gergen Dialogue (transcript of a David Gergen interview with the author)
-Biographical Info from MIT
-REVIEW : of American Scripture (Christopher Benfey, Slate)
If you liked American Scripture, try:
Becker, Carl (1873-1945)
Bowen, Catherine Drinker
Ellis, Joseph P.
Wood, Gordon S.