American scripture

American scripture

Historian Pauline Maier has written a very interesting and complete book about the making the Declaration of Independence which also puts the document in its historical context.

The road to independence started in 1765 with the Stamp Act but at the time the Colonists were not really aimed at independence. Serious thought about separating from the mother country really began with Lexington-Concord in April of 1775. The next month, May, the Second Continental Congress convened and it is here the story of making the declaration begins.

If the story were just about writing the Declaration, it could be told rather quickly. Maier takes on the bigger and more interesting task of describing how it came to be that the Continental Congress issued a declaration at all.

The story of Jefferson being assigned the task of coming up with a draft and the committee of five that first revised it and presented the draft to the full congress is pretty well known. Yet even here, Maier describes in detail a process that history has simplified to give all the credit to Jefferson. She also describes why Jefferson got the credit.

The Declaration itself is written in three parts. The first and most familiar to modern Americans is an introduction. It describes that purpose of the document and makes the case for a compact theory of government. Very importantly, the case makes three significant points: first, that all men have certain equal and unalienable rights as men; second, that governments are created by men to safeguard those rights; and finally, that when governments fail in their duty to protect the rights of the people, the people have the right to alter or abolish that government.
Thus, the first part of the Declaration is revolutionary. It establishes the basis for the right of rebellion. In a document designed to justify the colonies declaring their independence from Great Britain, this was an essential first step.

The second part of the document lists the grievances against the King. Maier explains in some detail the evolution of the colonist's thinking in this regard. She also uses many examples of declarations made by individual colonies, counties, cities or fraternal organizations to show both the similarities and differences between them and the Congressional Declaration.

From the perspective of the right of the people to revolt against tyrannical government, the list of the king's actions becomes a description of what tyranny means.

The comparisons to other declarations of the time are very enlightening. Most of these actually preceded the Congressional Declaration and inspired it in both form and content.

Finally, the third part of the document--having laid the groundwork in the first two parts--declares that the colonies have sufficient cause to separate and ought of right to be free and independent states.

The story could end there but Maier goes further to place the Declaration in its changing place in American political thought. Almost forgotten in the 1780s, the Declaration was revived by supporters of Jefferson and later by Lincoln as he wrote to justify the abolition of slavery.
Maier describes how different parts of the document were used at different time for different political purposes. In 1776, the focus of discussion and critique after its issuance was on the list of charges against the king. Declaring independence was the goal of the Congress--a necessary step to make alliances that would make independence a reality.

Later, Lincoln used the "all men are created equal" clause to argue for an end to slavery. Today modern liberals use the same clause to argue not only for equality of opportunity but also for redistributionist policies to achieve equality of result.

Neither of those readings was intended by the writers of the document. To them, equality simply meant that no man was born with a right to rule other men. It was a repudiation of monarchy.

Almost as quickly forgotten but worth relearning today is the social contract theory of government also contained in the introductory paragraphs. It vests sovereignty with the people, making government their servant and not the reverse--which had been the case for all of recorded history to that point.

In addition to all this, Maier describes the drafting of the text in great detail. She explains each of the changes at each stage of the drafting and reviewing. Acting as a committee of the whole, the entire Congress collectively edited the draft presented to them by the committee. As we see each of the changes, we can agree with Maier that the editing process greatly improved the final product, a remarkable achievement in itself.

This is a highly readable book.

American scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
Pauline Maier
Vintage Books, July 1998.