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Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

by Garry Wills

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Analyzes the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and discusses the political, social, and intellectual philosophies on which it was based.

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  semoffat | Aug 6, 2021 |
It is not surprising that we should misunderstand the Declaration [of Jefferson's original draft]. It is written in the lost language of the Enlightenment. It is dark with unexamined lights. [xiv]

Jefferson's draft Declaration was altered before adoption by the Continental Congress; the prevailing notion is the alterations were stylistic improvements merely. Wills examines several reasons to doubt this, reasons we don't understand Jefferson's draft and the changes effected by the revisions. For one thing, we no longer understand the language it's written in (key familiar terms hold different meanings today). And, the vision instilled by Lincoln's Gettysburg Address serves now as a distorting lens. [xxiv] Finally, Congress rejected Jefferson's framework for understanding independence, namely his premise of "expatriation as independence," and so removed explicit references to that framework. The resulting document is mistakenly understood to be Lockean, when at root it was sentimental following Francis Hutcheson.

In addition to a close reading of Jefferson's Declaration and its important departures from the published Congressional document, Wills provides:
1 - Political context leading up to and including the Declaration (corrective to the commonplace "symbolic" meaning of the official Declaration)
2 - A primer on the Scottish Enlightenment and its place in Colonial America (especially the significance of moral sense philosophy)

Wills looks at the political arguments and backroom politicking, but more interesting for me is the intellectual history he brings. Why Jefferson argued for "expatriation as independence" and why he found it important to frame his argument in moral sentiment and science; opposed to Adams and others. Jefferson theorised through expatriation the Colonists broke fundamentally from Britain, broke the "ties of affection" which made us collectively a single people. Our colonial link to Britain came later, when charters were drawn severally to a common King. The later separation ("independence" in conventional wisdom) from Britain occurred in the hearts of men [sic], the Declaration merely acknowledging that fact. [316] Jefferson's draft rested on this understanding, and since no-one (excepting Geo Whyte) shared it, all explicit reference to it was excised from official document. But: vestigial evidence remains, discernible when read with the eyes of a student of the Scottish Enlightenment. Wills provides those eyes.

A fair question: why bother with Jefferson's draft, and the ideas informing it, if in fact no one else shared his premise for it, neither Loyalist nor Colonial? For me, it comes down to an interest in political culture, historical and contemporary. It is not so much recovering a "lost" education as providing a corrective to a tentative grasp on a superficial and distorted history, instilling in me a new-found interest in U.S. political culture and the events funding it.


Prologue outlines argument in Lincoln at Gettysburg; highlights how Lincoln made politics religious, rather than making a politics of his religion. This reinforced the already present influence of religion on U.S. politics. The danger of idealism, the inherent conservatism of it: conform to this ideal, or you are not a true American.

Of moral sense philosophy:
1 - when did it cease to be a standard?
2 - why did it no longer suffice? (related to internal issues with theory, or external developments in culture?)
3 - was decline linked to secular individualism and Lockean liberalism and Utilitarianism?
4 - what is the evidence for / against it? (ad points out mirror neurons as possible neurobiological corollary) ( )
2 vote elenchus | Jul 11, 2016 |
Very well written but a little more detail than I was looking for. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
This book is much broader than the title suggests. It does much to de-mythologize the Declaration itself, distinguishing the documents penned by Jefferson and approved by Congress from the symbolic meanings that have surrounded it, particularly since Lincoln's elegiac invocation of it in the Gettysburg address. But it is also a lucid and detailed study of the intellectual origins of virtually all of the ideas Jefferson put into the writing of it, not all of which were retained in the version approved by Congress on July 4th.

Though not a biography of Jefferson, Wills's deep study of the intellectual origins of Jefferson's Declaration moves Jefferson out of the mists of legend so that his ideas and contributions to the foundation of the America state can be properly evaluated.

I think Wills over-reaches a bit in some of his claims about the revolution, for instance too easily rejecting the role of a nascent working class politics in the Revolution,and the idea that some elements of the Constitution are at odds with the Declaration.

But the book remians quite valuable as an expllication of Jefferson's ideas. ( )
1 vote JFBallenger | Jul 16, 2007 |
Showing 4 of 4
Garry Wills has two distinct aims in this book. He wishes to demythologise American beliefs about the Declaration of Independence in order to discredit the view that the United States is founded upon an idea, upon a set of moral beliefs. In so doing, he is trying to refute, not only external commentators such as G.K. Chesterton, who wrote that ‘America is the only nation in the world founded upon a creed,’ but more importantly a central American tradition whose hero and spokesman is Lincoln. Lincoln is for Wills the prototype of the political moralist who is prepared to appeal to the Declaration against the status quo, even the constitutional status quo. From this moralism, so Wills believes, spring many of the evils that the United States, its aims sanctified in its own eyes by its high principles, has brought upon the world and itself. Yet it is, on Wills’s view, a moralism deeply alien to Jefferson’s own beliefs and intentions as embodied in his drafts of the Declaration.

Wills’s second aim, therefore, is to decipher those beliefs and intentions and to recover what he believes to be the lost truth about Jefferson’s philosophy. Jefferson was not, as so many have believed, a Lockean individualist. The influence of the French Enlightenment is far less important than some have insisted. The Jefferson of the Declaration was, in fact, a close disciple of the Scottish Enlightenment, influenced by Reid, Smith, Hume, and above all by Francis Hutcheson.

On 9 May 1825, Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee about the Declaration that ‘neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.’ It was intended, Jefferson goes on, ‘to place before mankind the common sense of the subject ...’

In the one paragraph which he devotes to this letter, Wills notes the main point that it makes without noticing the bearing of that point on his own project: ‘He is deliberately citing works of general regard, rather than a set of specific influences on him.’ Indeed he is, and he is telling us not to look for the antecedents of the Declaration in ‘specific influences on him’, but in ‘works of general regard’. It is perhaps significant that Wills omits from his quotation the first sentence quoted, since that strengthens the case for holding that Wills’s whole project is misconceived.
Wills’s book is so speculative and so unfocused in its examination of the intellectual forces at work in shaping Jefferson’s views as they are expressed in the Declaration that the unwary reader may be overwhelmed by the author’s seeming erudition and lulled into accepting his conclusions. In a word, Wills talks a pretty good game. But the moment his statements are subjected to scrutiny, they appear a mass of confusions, uneducated guesses, and blatant errors of fact. Inventing America falls into the category of “impressionistic” intellectual history, where breadth of coverage substitutes for scholarly substance. The reader is occasionally unsure whether the book is even meant to be a scholarly work. It lacks a subject index, and Wills has chosen to “footnote” his sources through often imprecise parenthetical citations. Future scholars may feel called upon to consult Inventing America when investigating Jefferson’s intellectual roots, for completeness’ sake if for no other reason. They will there find that Wills has invented a new Jefferson influenced by a Scottish moral philosophy which Wills has seriously misconstrued.
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The emphasis in the book's subtitle is on Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, which I mean to distinguish (as he did) from the congressional document.
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Analyzes the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and discusses the political, social, and intellectual philosophies on which it was based.

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