Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence
Who would think it possible to redirect historical scholarship by explaining what Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence? A host of able biographers have pursued Jefferson day-by-day and have even made lurid guesses at his nights. His papers are published with the most painstaking textual analysis ever accorded an American historical figure. Every scrap relating to the Declaration of Independence has been savored like holy writ, and the document itself is probably better known than any other in our history. But Garry Wills has now given us a reading of it that may radically change our perception both of the Declaration and of its author.
The title of the book is a little misleading. In Wills’s view America—the nation, the national government—was invented after the Declaration, and the Declaration was given a key (and undeserved) role in the process only in the nineteenth century. But Wills is not primarily interested in this invention. The real focus of his book, as indicated in the subtitle, is what Jefferson wrote in the last days of June and perhaps the first days of July, 1776. The Declaration of Independence as adopted by Congress was considerably altered in a number of places from Jefferson’s original draft, much to Jefferson’s chagrin. Previous historians and biographers have attributed his distress at the changes to an excessive pride of authorship, for nearly everyone agrees that the deletions and revisions strengthened the wording—a rare example of legislative tinkering that worked to advantage. Wills shows that the alterations actually blunted Jefferson’s meaning and were proper cause for his distress. Addressing himself to the Declaration as Jefferson wrote it, Wills finds in the deletions a clue to what Jefferson was trying to say not only in the omitted passages but also in what was left.
The results are little short of astonishing. Wills points out that few scholars have given close attention to Jefferson’s meaning since Carl Becker’s little book on the Declaration appeared in 1922. But he is too generous. Every historian of the Revolution has had to study the Declaration, and many have challenged Becker’s interpretation of the intellectual climate that produced it. But no one has offered so drastic a revision or so close or convincing an analysis of the document itself as Wills has now presented.
The heart of the new interpretation lies in a demonstration that Jefferson’s view of human society and government was not derived, as has commonly been supposed, from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Locke’s psychology, as set forth in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, may well have influenced Jefferson and his contemporaries, but Locke’s political and social ideas, Wills argues, are not what Jefferson embedded in the Declaration. The source of Jefferson’s thought and the key to what he was trying to say are to be found in the writings of eighteenth-century Scotsmen.
The writers of the Scottish Enlightenment—Kames,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.