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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.