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American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence

by Pauline Maier

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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


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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
How is it that a document that was at points derivative, specious, inflated and politically compromised came to take on almost sacred significance in American culture? In fact, few Americans have bothered to examine much beyond a few choice clauses from the preamble ("all men are created equal... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" etc.). But Maier (The Old Revolutionaries) certainly has. After a succinct and engaging account of the circumstances of the Second Continental Congress, she examines Jefferson's models, particularly the state and local declarations of independence framed in the spring of 1776. Maier then looks carefully at the work's original (though now largely ignored) purposethe airing of grievances against George III, some of which were localized insults generalized to the nation; some, so vague as to be pointless; some, blinkered versions of complex situations. Having set the stage, Maier then proceeds in the last quarter of her book to describe the evolving significance of the Declaration. Whereas Jefferson began to see it as his best chance at glory with the Republicans, who exploited it as an anti-British instrument, Lincoln used it to refute Stephen Douglas and, ultimately, slavery. It's not a terribly long book and could probably have been shorterthere are superfluities and tautologies (e.g. restating the point that leveling accusations at the king was the way Englishmen declared revolution). But these are stylistic quibbles. As an argument and an introduction to a crucial artifact of American culture, this book will clearly take its place alongside works by Michael Kammen and Garry Wills.
Library Journal
Maier (From Resistance to Revolution, LJ 7/72) sets the stage for her fascinating history of the Declaration of Independence with a concise and well-written introduction into the political background of the American Revolution. She provides the context for the document within the British tradition of declarations, addresses, and petitions and relates it to the many local and state declarations that aimed to mobilize support for independence. The thrust of her work is a careful examination of the drafting of the document by Jefferson and the Congressional committee; she then describes how Congress edited it into its final form. The latter third of the book is dedicated to the ways in which the Declaration has been redefined and used by different groups of Americans. Combining meticulous scholarship with clear prose, Maier tells a compelling story that will succeed in winning her a general audience. Highly recommended. LJ 3/1/97. David B. Mattern, Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville
Kirkus Reviews
Outstanding. Maier (The Old Revolutionaries, 1980, etc.) employs superior historiography and political sensitivity to place the Declaration in its original context, and considers what it has become in the context of American political history.

By examining the "other declarations" adopted by individual colonies and towns, she identifies common components later incorporated into the Declaration—including lists of grievances and appeals to norms limiting the exercise of authority—that indicate it was an embodiment of familiar sentiments rather than a radical break with established opinion. Jefferson's role as draftsman, and especially the contributions made by other members of the drafting committee and the Continental Congress as a whole, are traced in meticulous detail. Most importantly, we are reminded that in the midst of prosecuting a war the Declaration was only one item on a crowded agenda, and not a prolonged effort to create a document for the ages. Indeed, having served its purpose, the Declaration was basically forgotten for a couple of decades after its adoption. It resurfaced in the partisan politics of the Jeffersonian party, and Lincoln subsequently shaped it into a central symbol of the mature United States. Lincoln's version of the Declaration, however, emphasized human rights as a justification for Union action against rebels, while downplaying its status as an instrument of revolution. When text supposedly quoting the Declaration was inscribed on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial, all traces of a challenge to governmental authority had disappeared. For Maier the "making" of the Declaration, then, has been an ongoing project rather than a historical episode. Consequently, she decries the memorialized display of the Declaration in the National Archives. It is not simply a historical watermark to be consigned to the past. Its symbolic power, she asserts, needs still to be wielded by those continuing the search for political justice and freedom.

Arguably, the best book ever written on the Declaration of Independence.

From the Publisher
"Splendid. Maier skillfully traces the progress of the Declaration from political event to sacred text."—Washington Post

"Sharp and engaging...A meticulous exhumation of American history that is full of fascinating details and scintillating insights."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Gary Wills, stand aside. Pauline Maier has given us the freshest, best-informed historian's reading of the Declaration of Independence and its context that we have ever had. American Scripture enables us to see just how this sacred text was created, and the ways in which it was unique. It is a remarkable achievement!"
— Richard D. Brown, University of Connecticut

"Pauline Maier renders unto Jefferson that which is Jefferson's, but she tells a much larger story. She shows what made the Declaration possible and necessary, considers its lineage, probes its genesis in a time of extreme turmoil, and reflects on its continuing living meaning, achieving all of this in very elegant prose."
— Edward Countryman, Southern Methodist University

"Quite simply the fairest, fullest, and finest account ever written of how the Declaration of Independence happened."
— Joseph J. Ellis, Mount Holyoke College

"Until I read Pauline Maier's remarkable new book, I thought I knew all I needed to know about the Declaration of Independence. But her deft, lively analysis punctures the received mythology and gives us an entirely original interpretation of our founding document."
— J. Anthony Lukas, author of Common Ground

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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3 MB

Meet the Author

Pauline Maier was born in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She received her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1960, was a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics in 1960-61, and took her Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1968.  She has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts (Boston), University of Wisconsin, Yale University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she has been William R. Kenan, Junior, Professor of American History since 1990.  She is the author of From Resistance to Revolution, The Old Revolutionaries, and The American People: A History, a single-authored text for junior high school, as well as numerous other articles and reviews.

From the Hardcover edition.

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