John Maniscalco's Reviews > American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence

American Scripture by Pauline Maier
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Aug 04, 2011

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Read in August, 2011

Pauline Maier elegantly details the history of the Declaration of Independence in what seems to be an attempt to knock it off its pedestal.

This book has two main parts to it. The first part, and the vast majority of the book, is concerned with the need for a declaration of independence, its construction, and the purpose it served. Maier provides a wealth of good information that clears up some common misconceptions that serve to give the Declaration and almost holy status. To sum up, according to Maier, colonists turned to revolution only when the King declared them out of his protection, not by the arguments of republican ideology; state governments had first made their declarations which made stronger cases against the king than had Jefferson's; and Jefferson was the drafter, not author of the Declaration of Independence, who could be guilty of plagiarism. While I do not agree with Maier's effort to reduce the Declaration's historical signficance (she might say "mythological status"), the amount of information given in this section is worth a read and probably four stars.

But the last 30 pages of the book, however, are devoted to the Declaration's lasting influence and harps on the contradiction of a slave-holding nation founding on the belief that all men are created equal. Instead of arguing that the acceptance of slavery was a necessary evil to keep the federal union intact, Maier argues that the Declaration is a "living document" that achieved its true promise through Lincoln's new use of it in the Gettysburg Address. She concludes by stating that the Declaration's message can be altered to fit with the times of the day, which in essence is to state the the Declaration has no meaning at all.

This is indicative of a filthy habit among historians to reduce all of the Founders to their position on the issue of slavery. Never mind that the Founders, Jefferson in particular, had established a nation that for the first time rejected the idea that some people are not born to serve while others are born to rule and was devoted to the notion that men are equal under the law, that they are born with natural rights, that governments are instituted to protect these rights, and finally, that when a government fails to secure these rights or abuses them, the people have the right of revolution to institute a legitimate government.

As he was dying, Jefferson noted that the world was opening its eyes to freedom and to the principles espoused in the Declaration of Independents. He himself knew that the world he lived in did not live up to his own republican standards. Lincoln had correctly used the words of the Declaration, he hadn't mangled or reinvented them, to address the issues of the day. And that is the point of the Declaration of Independence. It is an eternal document that advances ancient and perpetual truths. Because the world lagged behind the document in the 18th and 19th centuries does not mean that it is a "living" document. It means that the march towards freedom, begun by the Declaration of Independence, flowing from Jefferson's pen, continues.

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