American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independenceby Pauline Maier
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.
By examining the "other declarations" adopted by individual colonies and towns, she identifies common components later incorporated into the Declarationincluding lists of grievances and appeals to norms limiting the exercise of authoritythat 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.
"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
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Random House
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews