Monday, August 10, 2015

The Declaration was a re-write

Book review:
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., 1998.

The Declaration of Independence was a re-write….and it didn’t start the Revolution.

A quick review of what we know about the Declaration, courtesy of the late Prof. Pauline Maier: basically, it’s trash talk to King George III.


This book exposes the backstory of the Declaration. Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft in his stuffy room in Philadelphia, but the final document is the work of many hands. The Second Continental Congress substantially re-worked Jefferson's draft. The Declaration didn't "start" the American Revolution. It wasn't the "kickoff" event. It was more like a final formality to officially authorize the colonial rebellion which had been evolving for years and which had already been the subject of a shooting war for more than a year.


A point that’s interesting to me: much of the stirring prose in the Declaration had already been written in various forms by Jefferson and others in the multitude of documents approved locally throughout the colonies, expressing the colonials' increasing frustration with the failure of their efforts to negotiate a suitable accommodation with the King and his ministers and Parliament. Until the shooting started, there was persistent strong support throughout the colonies for remaining within the empire as long as American self-government could be sustained.



Finally, there is Maier's take on the Declaration as a late blooming "American Scripture." She documents, and challenges, the 19th century politicians' cumulative (and heedlessly incorrect) re-interpretation of the Declaration as a statement of governing principles and a blueprint for American political values and American democracy. Maier makes a plain case that the Declaration was intended only to demonstrate why, finally, the colonial disdain of King George had made American rebellion necessary and unavoidable.



A note for the serious reader: Chapter 4 incongruously seems to stray into anecdotal commentary on various interpretations by Abraham Lincoln and others. I understand the imputed relevance, but this section of American Scripture seemed to be casually written and insufficiently edited.

No comments:

Post a Comment