I give it good marks for
subject, elegant delivery of good information, prose style and the author’s
literate assessment of primary sources.
Lincoln is the most
written-about president, with good reason.
Kaplan offers a
well-informed, systematic investigation of Lincoln’s reading habits and writing
I know a published author
who widely and deeply savored the exploration of Lincoln’s love affair with
language and meaning. Likewise, I’m a writer and I was intrigued by much of
what Kaplan offered in the first 100 pages or so.
I’m a historian. I am
intuitively drawn to the longue duréeconcept of history and
historical analysis, and its emphasis on the complex dynamics of deeply rooted,
persistent structure underlying social, economic and political transformations.
I explicitly reject the
“great man” theory of history and historical analysis. I am actually
disinclined to give credence to a biographer’s undocumented assertions that his
subject “might have given credence to” anything in particular, or that his
subject “must have believed” something or other, or that his subject “embraced
as his own the melancholy of [Gray’s] ‘Elegy,’ [but] did not share, as a young
man, its dark stoicism.”
Kaplan’s text is filled
with statements like these. They aren’t to my taste. After 100 pages or so, I
put the book down.
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.