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Dusting Off the Declaration

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence

by Pauline Maier
Knopf, 304 pp., $27.50

Scholars who talk about America’s “civic religion” often don’t appreciate the half of it. Not only have we Americans turned profane political beliefs into a hallowed religious-like creed, but we have transformed very secular and temporal documents into sacred scriptures. We have even built a temple to preserve and display the great documents consecrating the founding of the American creed—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., these holy texts are enshrined in massive, bronze-framed, bulletproof, moisture-controlled glass containers that have been drained of all harmful oxygen. During the day these “Charters of Freedom” are on display in the rotunda of the National Archives for the faithful to pay homage to; but at night the documents and their containers are lowered into a vault of reinforced concrete and steel that is twenty-two feet deep and weighs fifty-five tons. Once inside the vault with the huge doors on top swung shut, the scriptural texts, the National Archives assures us, are safe.

Pauline Maier opens her history of the making of the Declaration of Independence, the most sacred of these documents, with this vivid description of the rotunda of the National Archives. In Maier’s eyes the shrine where the documents are displayed resembles nothing so much as the awesome, gilded, pre-Vatican II altars of her Catholic girlhood, raised three steps above where the worshippers assembled. The whole shrine seems to belong in a Baroque church somewhere in Rome. On the altar’s surface are spread out the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but at the center of the shrine, held above the altar in what looks like a tabernacle or monstrance, is the most holy document of all—the Declaration of Independence. Every day hundreds of believers file by the altar looking up reverentially at this document, “as if it were handed down by God or were the work of superhuman men whose talents far exceeded those of any who followed them.”

Maier, as an experienced student of the American Revolution, has no patience with the quasi-religious adoration of a document whose actual historical origins she has come to know so well. She is “uncomfortable,” she says, “with the use of religious words and images for what are, after all, things of this world.” The whole business of erecting a shrine for the worship of the Declaration of Independence strikes her as “idolatrous, and also curiously at odds with the values of the Revolution,” which was suspicious of Catholic iconographic practices. More important, the Declaration of Independence seems to her to be “peculiarly unsuited” for the role that it eventually came to play in America—“as a statement of basic principles for the guidance of an established society.” At the beginning, in 1776, it was not meant to be that at all.

In her book Maier wants Americans to know that the Declaration of Independence was created by human beings just like them and that they are its masters, not its supplicants. She wants to liberate the Declaration from its tomb by recovering the actual historical circumstances of its creation, circumstances whose mundane nature puts the origins of the Declaration greatly at odds with the seemingly religious character it later acquired. In confronting this contradiction Maier found herself with two different but related stories to tell—“that of the original making of the Declaration of Independence and that of its remaking into the document most Americans know, remember, and revere.” Her book thus presents a classic example of the longstanding conflict between history and heritage that David Lowenthal has recently described in a superb study.1

Maier has little sympathy with most previous analyses of the Declaration, which tended to concentrate on the ideas and the philosophies that presumably lay behind its words. She doesn’t bother with hermeneutics or attempt to refute Carl Becker, Morton White, and Garry Wills, the principal scholars who have written on the Declaration in this century. These scholars, like most students of the document, she writes, “examined the Declaration for the political ideas it expressed, and then jumped from its text to the more systematic treatises of eighteenth-century European writers.” Instead, she simply bypasses their often ethereal discussions of political philosophy and descends directly to “the grubby world of eighteenth-century American politics” where she has spent much of her working life. It is in that political world, she says, that an accurate understanding of the origins of the Declaration can best be found.

It turns out that the Declaration is not so extraordinary after all, that Jefferson was not as original or as important as he is sometimes pictured in drafting it, and that we don’t have to know about the ideas of such philosophers as John Jacques Burlamaqui or Francis Hutcheson to comprehend it. Maier is a historian through and through, and in her expert hands the Declaration is set in its actual historical context and becomes what it was in 1776—simply “a workaday document of the Second Continental Congress” and “one of many similar documents of the time in which Americans advocated, explained, and justified Independence.” Her book is contextual history at its best.

Maier begins her account with the assembling of the Second Continental Congress in May of 1775, soon after the war between colonists and Britain broke out at Lexington and Concord in April. The Congress quickly became the first government of the United States, and “no doubt,” she says, “the strangest government we have ever had.” In essence the Congress replaced the British Crown in American political life, which is why it assumed an authority far beyond what the colonists had conceded to Parliament. As a substitute for the Crown, it set out to do all the things that the King had done in the colonies, from regulating Indian affairs to borrowing money to directing the army. The confusion and the heavy tasks of government often overwhelmed the several dozen delegates from the colonies who made up the Congress. Because Congress was the entire central government for the colonies, combining legislative, executive, and judicial functions, the members of Congress ended up deciding not only major issues of policy but also the most mundane matters of administration, including whether to pay the bill submitted by a doorkeeper for his services. With only a handful of clerks to help the delegates, it is amazing that anything got done.

When the war began in April, Maier writes, most Americans still favored reconciliation with Great Britain. They said they were willing to remain within the British Empire but tied as separate colonies only to the King, with Parliament having no authority over them whatever. How the colonists arrived at this extraordinary conclusion, anticipating by nearly two centuries what became the commonwealth theory of the British Empire, is part of the fascinating story of the imperial debate that took place during the previous decade.

The colonists had begun the debate with Britain in 1765 by declaring their opposition to the Stamp Act, convinced that they could be taxed only by their own representatives. At the same time, however, they did concede that Parliament had the right to regulate their trade as it had done since the seventeenth century. The British responded by asserting the sovereignty of Parliament—the Parliament’s authority was supreme, final, and indivisible. As the Declaratory Act of 1766 stated, it could bind the colonies “in all case whatsoever.” When the colonists continued to try to divide Parliament’s authority, denying its right to tax them but allowing its right to regulate their trade, the British government became exasperated. The colonists, the British apologists said, were either entirely under Parliament’s authority or entirely outside it: there was no middle ground.

By 1773-1774 many of the colonists had decided that if these were the choices, they were better off being wholly outside Parliament’s authority and connected to Britain only by their common allegiance to the King. But of course they could not entirely ignore that the colonists in the past had recognized Parliament’s right to regulate their trade; the best the First Continental Congress could do in 1774 was to slip in a grant of power to Parliament to regulate their trade “from the necessity of the case.” By 1775 many colonists had repudiated even that necessity. And that repudiation explains why James Wilson of Pennsylvania made the seemingly absurd suggestion that regulation of trade be made part of the King’s prerogative powers; it seemed the only way of consistently denying Parliament’s authority and still meaningfully remaining in a royal commercial empire.

In her recounting of the escalating imperial controversy, Maier does not have much sympathy for the British position. She concentrates on the detailed setting of the American side of the debate, and the British get short shrift. She dismisses the King as being “stubborn, not especially imaginative, and temperamentally disinclined to think through the careful arguments colonists posed,” and describes British policy as persistently “wrongheaded.” Perhaps a more extensive inquiry into the British position might have shifted her sympathies somewhat and made clearer why the British acted as they did. The British government after all was in desperate need of money to support its newly enlarged American empire and it naturally looked to the colonists to give it some help. For nearly a decade the government had appeased the colonists and backed away from one colonial protest after another until it felt it could retreat no more.

Although Maier does not describe the British position in much depth, she more than makes up for this by her rich account of the American position. Her most important contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Declaration is her long second chapter, “The ‘Other’ Declarations of Independence.” In her research she uncovered at least ninety different declarations of Independence that Americans in the colonies (later states) and localities adopted between April and July of 1776, most of which have been forgotten under the influence of our national obsession with the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence. These declarations were issued by a wide variety of groups and institutions—Massachusetts town meetings, New York mechanics, Pennsylvania militiamen, Maryland and Virginia county conventions, and South Carolina grand juries. They were expressions of popular feeling from the bottom up. In fact, Maier believes that these “state and local ‘declarations of Independence’ offer the best opportunity to hear the voice of the people from the spring of 1776 that we are likely to get.”

In persuasive detail Maier demonstrates that these many addresses and declarations had numerous precedents in English history, the most important being, of course, the English Declaration of Rights of 1688-1689. The seventeenth-century English Declaration had a particular significance for Americans in 1776 because it not only formally ended the reign of James II but justified that outcome by making a series of accusations against the King. Many Americans, including Jefferson in his preamble for the Virginia constitution, used the English Declaration as a model and sought to bring the same kinds of charges against George III as had been brought against James II.

In all of their various declarations and resolutions on Independence issued between April and July 1776 the Americans were self-consciously concerned, as their ancestors had been in 1689, to justify legally their break from the Crown. Although these documents often differed from one another in form and style, their contents were remarkably similar. They tended to cite the same brief set of oppressive acts to explain why independence from Britain was necessary. Although the provincial and local declarations usually singled out for scorn Parliament’s claim to make laws to bind the colonists “in all cases whatsoever,” they increasingly concentrated on the actions of the King, the King being the only link many Americans still thought remained between the colonies and Great Britain. They indicted the King for rejecting their petitions, for waging war on them, for hiring German mercenaries, and for declaring that they were in a state of rebellion and out of the Crown’s protection. In the end, the states and localities justified their separation from Britain by the natural laws of self-preservation and by the King’s breaking of the presumed contract between ruler and people.

Although the central purpose of Maier’s book is to explain the origins not of the Revolution but of the Declaration of Independence, she also perceives in the dozens of state and local resolutions and declarations the reasons why the Americans revolted from Great Britain in 1776. Although often legalistic in style, these documents were actually personal and historical in character; they showed how and why the men who drafted and adopted them had become converted to independence. “Nothing,” she writes, “—certainly not the Declaration of Independence Congress set about editing on July 2—provides a better explanation of why the American people finally chose to leave the British Empire and to take up the reins of government themselves.”

This is a remarkable statement, for it assumes an old-fashioned mode of historical explanation that most twentieth-century historians, from Charles Beard to Lewis Namier, have disparaged—namely, the view that formal public documents provide the best historical evidence of why people acted as they did. No doubt Maier’s suggestion that the formal addresses and declarations of these years offer the fullest explanation for the Revolution is a healthy corrective in our cynical age where apparently nothing can be taken at face value. But were there no other motivations, no other sources, for the Revolution than what Americans stated in formal documents? George III, royal officials, and American Tories certainly thought there were many unspoken ambitions and desires lying behind the Revolutionary movement; and everything that we have learned about human psychology and latent material interests over the past century and a half suggests that there may be some truth in what they said. Can we be sure, for example, that because the formal documents did not stress economic motives “the promise of economic freedom and expansion was never powerfully yoked to the cause of Independence”?

By assuming that the Americans always meant what they said in their many formal documents, Maier creates some awkwardness for herself. The colonists, for example, in their addresses and petitions to the British government in 1775 often stressed that as faithful subjects they had no intention of dissolving the imperial relationship and wanted nothing more than a just reconciliation with the mother country. By taking the Americans at their word and emphasizing their persistent loyalty and desires for reconciliation, Maier naturally finds that their eventual decision for Independence must have been a “difficult” one. She tries to account for this difficulty by suggesting that the colonists feared cutting loose from a nation for whose values and institutions they had a strong inherited reverence.

This means that she has to downplay Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January 1776, with its excited call for independence and its vicious assault on the British constitution. Her ninety provincial and local documents, she says, suggest that “Paine’s influence was more modest than he claimed and than his more enthusiastic admirers assume.” Then, however, Maier has to admit that much of Paine’s case against monarchy had been made in the colonial press or pulpits over the previous six years—but not, of course, in any of the formal documents or declarations issued by the colonists in those years.

Such a discrepancy between what the formal public documents were saying and what other voices in the culture were saying presents a problem that Maier, in her efforts to explain the Revolution, repeatedly stumbles over or evades. She finds, for example, that in the many state and local declarations “concern for American ‘virtue,’ so much emphasized by recent historians, was a distinctly minor theme.” But, of course, it was not a minor theme for many other writers faced with the social and moral implications of establishing republics. By concentrating almost exclusively on the formal public declarations of Independence that necessarily tended to be consensus-building in character, Maier has no way of accounting for either the passionate revulsions or the soaring aspirations expressed in other kinds of documents.

But these difficulties in explaining the Revolution do not ultimately detract from Maier’s main task of explaining the Declaration of Independence. In that task she has succeeded superbly. She has put together as complete and as accurate an account of how the Declaration was written as we are ever likely to get. She shows that the participants’ later recollections are full of mistakes, and she demonstrates convincingly that the Declaration was not the work of a single talented writer but the product of many busy men working under very tight time constraints.

Only on June 11, 1776, did Congress appoint the drafting committee. Jefferson and John Adams dominated the committee, with Jefferson writing the initial draft; but the other committee members, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin, also made contributions. And most important, Maier writes, the Congress itself “by an act of group editing that has to be one of the great marvels of history” turned the committee’s draft into a distinguished document.

Jefferson worked fast, drawing on the draft preamble for the Virginia constitution that he had just completed, which itself was based on the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, and on a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights recently drafted by George Mason. Maier points out quite rightly that the eighteenth century had little of our modern striving for novelty or our aversion to imitation: “Achievement lay instead in the creative adaptation of preexisting models to different circumstances.” So Jefferson had no inhibitions in borrowing from himself and others.

According to Maier, he would have benefited from paying more attention to the other declarations of independence, which had the good sense to realize that less is often better. To justify American Independence Jefferson thought he had to cite as many injuries and usurpations that George III had inflicted on the colonists as he could. Some of his twenty-one charges against the King were so vague and obscure that his draft “left observers, then and now, scrambling to figure out what it was talking about.” Most extraordinary was Jefferson’s accusation that George III was solely responsible for the persistence of the slave trade, which, says Maier, Jefferson meant to be “the emotional climax of his case against the King.” Adams later recalled that he thought that Jefferson’s indictment of the King was “too personal” and “too passionate, too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document,” but he made very few changes in the draft at the time. Maier is less deferential: she is sure that the more focused and more concise resolutions of the states and localities offered a more effective case for Independence than Jefferson had.

Jefferson’s preamble with its ringing phrases about equality and rights is what we today most remember and care about; in fact, the preamble alone is what has made the Declaration the most sacred of all American political documents. For this reason modern scholars have tended to ignore the charges against the King and to focus on the preamble, treating it as a philosophical statement and looking for its sources in every conceivable corner of the intellectual world of eighteenth-century Europe. Maier knows better; she knows that the Declaration was not a philosophical but a political and constitutional document, and she finds the sources of its preamble in the writings of contemporary Americans, especially in George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. There was nothing new, Maier writes, in what Jefferson said. All of the sentiments that Jefferson so eloquently expressed—from men being “created equal” to their right to “the pursuit of happiness”—were “absolutely conventional among Americans of his time.”

On June 28 Congress received the committee’s draft, and on July 2, after actually affirming that the colonies were free and independent states, it began revising it. It was not an easy time for editing documents. The British army had just landed on Staten Island, and the Congress had a multitude of tasks to attend to, including deciding the wages and rum allowance that shipwrights sent to Lake Champlain would receive. We know nothing of how the members of Congress went about their editing, only the results. Congress eliminated fully a quarter of Jefferson’s text, including his long outlandish passage on the slave trade, and generally moderated his harsh claims.

All in all, Maier believes that the members of Congress did a remarkable job of compressing and improving Jefferson’s text. “By exercising their intelligence, political good sense, and a discerning sense of language, the delegates managed to make the Declaration at once more accurate and more consonant with the convictions of their constituents, and to enhance both its power and its eloquence.” Jefferson, of course, never saw it that way. He was angry at the cuts and for the rest of his life insisted on the superiority of his original draft.

Maier devotes the final chapter of her book to the ways the Declaration developed in the half century or so following 1776 into the moral standard of the nation. At first, with Independence established and with no need any longer to explain how and why British authority had ended, the document was all but forgotten. Indeed, Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights seems to have had more impact on Revolutionary constitution makers than the Declaration of Independence. Certainly no one initially saw the Declaration as a classic statement of political principles. Only in the 1790s, with the emergence of the bitter partisan politics between the Federalists and the Jefferson-led Republicans, did the Declaration begin to be celebrated as a great founding document.

Because the Federalists dominated most local celebrations of the Fourth of July, the Republicans began holding their own celebrations marked by readings of the Declaration that emphasized Jefferson’s role in its creation.2 Over the next several decades not only did Americans become increasingly familiar with the language of the Declaration, but they came to cherish that language to the point that they were willing to fight over who was responsible for it. By the early nineteenth century people were much more interested in individual creativity and originality than they had been in the eighteenth century. Suddenly the authorship of the Declaration assumed an importance that it had not had earlier.

During the 1820s a new generation of Americans anxiously began recovering and preserving remnants of the Revolutionary past that seemed to be rapidly passing away. As one of the longest-lived Revolutionaries, Jefferson was well aware of what was happening, and he actively fostered this new dedication to the past, particularly to the new interest in the writing of the Declaration of Independence. He remained concerned with all aspects of the Declaration, and over the decades he wrote hundreds of letters in response to requests for details on its creation. Gradually he came to see his writing of the Declaration as a justification of his life’s work; and in 1826, the last year of his life, he proposed that his tomb should list “Author of the Declaration of Independence” as the first of what he believed were his three great achievements, the others being his drafting of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and his founding of the University of Virginia. By then Jefferson had come to realize that the Declaration had assumed a quasi-religious character and that small things, such as his writing desk, had become holy objects “like the relics of saints.”

As Americans began sanctifying Jefferson and his Declaration, they increasingly concentrated on its preamble, particularly on the phrase “all men are created equal.” Workers, farmers, and women’s rights advocates began using the Declaration to justify their quests for equality and their opposition to the tyranny of others. The most powerful invocations of the Declaration, however, were made by the opponents of slavery who stressed what William Lloyd Garrison called the “horrible inconsistency” between the Declaration’s professions of liberty and equality and America’s continued practice of slavery. This in turn provoked the defenders of slavery, like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, to claim that there was “not a word of truth” in the Declaration’s notion that all men were created equal. By the 1850s anti-slavery politicians like Abraham Lincoln had come to believe that the equality phrase in the Declaration was “the father of all moral principles” and the basic “axiom” of a free society. Maier admits that in many respects the Southern defenders of slavery often offered a more historically accurate understanding of the Declaration than did slavery’s opponents. Lincoln’s “version of what the founders meant,” for example, “was full of wishful suppositions.”

But whether it was bad history or not, Lincoln’s appeal to equality in the Declaration as the moral standard for Americans was not, in Maier’s convincing view, a single-handed sleight-of-hand foisted on the nation, as Wilmoore Kendall, M.E. Bradford, and Garry Wills have argued; rather it was the natural consequence of the ways that many Americans during the previous generation had used the ideal of equality to advance a variety of causes. Lincoln by himself no more gave the nation a new past than Jefferson by himself created the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, Maier says, belongs to the entire culture, which continually reinterprets it; “its meaning changes as new groups and new causes claim its mantle, constantly reopening the issue of what the nation’s ‘founding principles’ demand.” Of course, these changing meanings of the Declaration, like Lincoln’s “wishful suppositions,” make up the heritage that distorts and violates the authentic history that Maier, as a good critical historian, hopes to promote. To what extent should critical history try to undermine the kind of moralizing heritage that Maier analyzes? Her book raises the question but does not explicitly answer it.

In the last pages of her book Maier’s tone in criticizing the shrine in the National Archives becomes more openly strident and angry. Not only does the shrine have nothing whatever to do with the actual history of the Revolution, but it harms our ability to act in the present. “The symbolism is all wrong,” she says;

it suggests a tradition locked in a glorious but dead past, reinforces the passive instincts of an anti-political age, and undercuts the acknowledgment and exercise of public responsibilities essential to the survival of the republic and its ideals.

She wants us to realize that the vitality of the Declaration lies in our readiness to discuss its implications and in our ongoing politics, “not in the mummified paper curiosities lying in state at the Archives,” and “not in the worship of false gods who are at odds with our eighteenth-century origins.”

This seems harsh. Can we have a civic religion entirely without relics? Perhaps Maier ought to have a little more sympathy for a people that lack common origins as well as most of the other ordinary attributes of nationhood. At the outset she pointed out that “the original, signed texts of the Declaration of Independence and, to a lesser extent, the Constitution have become for the United States what Lenin’s body was for the Soviet Union, a tangible remnant of the revolution to which its children can still cling.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, some Russians are now suggesting that Lenin should be finally buried. By contrast, it hardly seems a symbol of decadence or weakness that many Americans want to see original texts of the documents whose principles and traditions hold them together. Surely no country’s sense of itself as a cohesive nation is ever so strong that it can do without at least a few tangible symbols of identity and purpose. Paying homage to eloquently composed historical documents seems a rather innocuous way for a people to maintain its heritage and affirm its nationhood. Instead of lamenting such symbolism, perhaps we ought to be glad that there are some Americans still drawn to seeing these remnants of our Revolution. And a good many of them, we may suspect, come to see them not in a spirit of abject veneration but just to get an idea of what they looked like when they were written.

  1. 1

    David Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Free Press, 1996.)

  2. 2

    For a full account see Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997).

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