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Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas

by Carl L. Becker

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Still one of the great analyses of the Declaration of Independence explaining section by section the history and philsophy behind it. ( )
  Maya47Bob46 | Apr 2, 2013 |
Carl Becker was a history professor at Cornell in 1922 when he published “The Declaration of Independence; A Study in the History of Political Ideas”. There are several threads combined in his study.

He first reviews the words of the Declaration, expanding on or explaining details. For example he tells of the specific laws and events complained of in the usurpations section. Then he calls attention to two or three ‘omissions’: Congress never referred to the ‘Rights of Englishmen’ as they had done in the 1774 Declarations; and Congress never mentioned Parliament at all, hoping to keep such friends as they felt they had in that body, and avoid the issue of parliamentary authority.

Next he takes some of the unique elements and traces those ideas, at least through the minds of several of the key congressmen. We are shown some letters and quotes from the usually known Jefferson and Adams, but he also goes back into the contributions made by Dickinson, Lee, James Wilson, Sam Adams, and James Otis to the mindset that required separation from England. He traces the origin of the Creator given rights the same way with some attention to European thought (Locke, etc) and 1765-1776 works of American clergy in both writing and sermons.

Becker then discusses the draft versions, and minor changes in wording that happened before final approval. He does note the reasons that some statements (such as blaming the King for encouraging slavery) were removed to gain support from some southern delegates. But in general, reviewing each change in wording and tracing individual contributions is just tedious.

Commenting on the success and felicity of the wording, Becker notes that rhetoric teaches us ,i>“good rules for writing in general; but Jefferson violated them all, perhaps because he was writing something particular.” In his analysis of the wording, Becker also isolates and restates the primary focus of the Declaration: that Americans had created their governments before but had chosen to retain their alignment with the kingdom, and now were forced to abandon that alignment. Becker puts forward that the final document produced by congress is tighter and more forceful that Jefferson’s draft. He even supports removing the slavery section as an appeal to the heart rather than the mind of the declaration's audience.

His last section describes the contemporary response by loyalists and English supporters. The most inspiring element here is his quote of John Lind (a London barrister) which was published in his “Answer to the Declaration”. Lind took many pages to refute the ‘usurpations’ one by one. But he dismissed the main declaration of rights and independence since these sections “put the axe to the root of every government” since in all governments “some one or other of these rights pretended to be unalienable is actually alienated.” Becker also views as a shortfall that the natural rights section was ignored in the U.S. Constitution, and quietly laments the shift from ‘consent of the people’ to a ‘consent of the majority’.

As Becker follows the elements of the Declaration into the nineteenth century, he deals with the retreat from its basis. In order not to have permanent revolutions, conservatives sought to refute or discredit both Rousseau’s Social Contract and Jefferson’s Declaration. The view of rights and government espoused by the Declaration were severely limited in the 19th century.

Despite some tedious sections, I can only recommend the overall work as providing a worthwhile snapshot of a point in time during the American Revolution, with some usually overlooked details. These features and the thought provoking view of history’s handling of the Declaration make it important to the student of Liberty. ( )
1 vote ServusLibri | Aug 2, 2009 |
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Introduction:  My book on the Declaration of Independence, when it appeared in 1922, was well received, so far as I now recall, by all of the reviewers except one.
Chapter 1, It is often forgotten that the document which we know as the Declaration of Independence is not the official act by which the Continental Congress voted in favor if separation from Great Britain.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0394700600, Paperback)

When Carl L. Becker's classic study of the text of the Declaration of Independence first appeared in 1922, it marked a great departure from the passionate and patriotic tenor of many existing historical analyses. Becker claims his work was well received by all reviewers save one, who criticized its preoccupation with hard cold documents. In the 1941 introduction to this edition, Becker defends his approach, stating: "I was aware that men had bled and died for freedom.... But on this occasion I chose to write a book about the document itself ... a state paper of sufficient renown to be classed with the world's classics of political literature."

Becker describes the rhythm of the first line of the Declaration of Independence as "that felicitous, haunting cadence which is the peculiar quality of Jefferson's best writing." He goes on to define the purpose of the document, its views, where those views arose, and how succeeding generations have accepted or modified them. Chapters such as "Historical Antecedents of the Declaration: The Natural Rights Philosophy," "Drafting the Declaration; The Literary Qualities of the Declaration," and "The Philosophy of the Declaration in the Nineteenth Century" distinguish this book as one of the most complete studies of America's--and arguably the world's--most important historical document.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:40 -0400)

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