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American Scripture: Making the Declaration…
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American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence

by Pauline Maier

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This is a very readable book that exposes the backstory of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson isn't the primary author. The Second Continental Congress substantially re-worked Jefferson's draft. The Declaration didn't "start" the American Revolution. It wasn't the "kickoff" event, it was more like a final formality to officially authorize the colonial rebellion which had been evolving for years and which had already been the subject of a shooting war for more than a year.
Most interesting to me: much of the stirring prose in the Declaration had already been written in various forms by Jefferson and others in the multitude of documents approved locally throughout the colonies, expressing the colonials' increasing frustration with the failure of their efforts to negotiate a suitable accommodation with the King and his ministers and Parliament. There was persistent strong support throughout the colonies for remaining within the empire as long as American self-government could be sustained.
Finally, there is Maier's take on the Declaration as a late blooming "American Scripture." This is her description of the 19th century politicians' cumulative (and heedlessly incorrect) re-interpretation of the Declaration as a statement of governing principles and a blueprint for American political values and American democracy. Maier has made a plain case that the Declaration was intended only to demonstrate why the actions and disdain of King George had made American rebellion necessary and unavoidable.
My note for the serious reader: for my taste, Chapter 4 incongruously seems to stray into anecdotal commentary on various interpretations by Abraham Lincoln and others. I understand the imputed relevance, but this section of American Scripture seemed to be casually written and insufficiently edited.
Read more on my blog: http://barleyliterate.blogspot.com/ ( )
  rsubber | Apr 7, 2013 |
Maier challenges the supposed reverence that most Americans have for the Declaration of Independence. She contends that the Declaration was largely ignored in the first few decades after the Revolution.

The Declaration became a "religious" symbol near the end of Thomas Jefferson's life. Maier, no fan of the third president, argues that Jefferson was elevated to "Christlike" status because of his "authorship" of the Declaration.

She argues, only somewhat convincingly, that the Declaration should be seen as part of stream of similar, local documents of the time. She argues, again only somewhat convincingly, that the Declaration has been used and abused by many people over its history. The abolitionists, the secessionists, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the most famous targets.

It is well written and well researched, if not convincing in its arguments. Nonetheless, she offers some fascinating details of the process of writing used by the Second Continental Congress.

She claims that American falsely revere the document because of its place at the "altar" in the National Archives. The reality is that most Americans revere the principles espoused in the document. ( )
  w_bishop | Oct 8, 2009 |
If you're looking for a great book on the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the clear choice is Pauline Maier's American Scripture. Maier begins with a travel narrative of sorts, explaining what an early American historian sees when she visits the National Archives, and observes hundreds of tourists waiting to view the document. No other significant document in the history of the United States, she notices, seems to create as much reverence, excitement, and patriotism as the Declaration. While the viewers don't necessarily have all of the history under exact command, they have great respect for the document. How the document came to be, and how it developed such popular acclaim become the subjects of the rest of Maier's book. This book truly is a history of the writing of the Declaration. Maier examines the documents that preceded that of July 4, 1776. She finds that in the months preceding July 1776 localities drafted their own declarations, mini-declarations, declaring the cessation of their allegiance to George III and Parliament. These mini-declarations formed the linguistic and stylistic basis for the national declaration. Producing the American Declaration of Independence was a task that fell to a committee of five, which included Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams. The lion's share of the credit for drafting the Declaration is usually accorded to Jefferson, but Maier finds that the committee of five, particularly Adams, was far more influential than previously thought. Ultimately Maier's book is carefully researched and well-crafted. It is beautifully written, and a joy to read. For those who teach American history, as I do, it is an excellent resource to use in an advanced undergraduate class to discuss how to do research and how to write history. I read this book my first year of graduate school and have relied on it heavily ever since. ( )
2 vote lahochstetler | Aug 13, 2008 |
Well-written and useful in discussing the origins and composition of the Declaration. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 18, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679779086, Paperback)

This is a well-written, well-researched, entertaining account of the creation of the United States' Declaration of Independence as well as an analysis of how the declaration has been enshrined as something of a sacred document (a place it did not always hold). Pauline Maier, a history professor at MIT, will no doubt surprise many readers with detective work demonstrating that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was actually preceded by many local declarations, which have been generally overlooked by historians but which were published throughout the colonies and were well known in their day. American Scripture holds many surprises as it details Jefferson's drafting of the document, the editing process, and the varying regard with which the Declaration of Independence has been held in the past two centuries.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:36:46 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Pauline Maier shows us the Declaration as both the defining statement of our national identity and the moral standard by which we live as a nation. It is truly "American Scripture," and Maier tells us how it came to be - from the Declaration's birth in the hard and tortuous struggle by which Americans arrived at Independence to the ways in which, in the nineteenth century, the document itself became sanctified. Maier describes the transformation of the Second Continental Congress into a national government, unlike anything that preceded or followed it, and with more authority than the colonists would ever have conceded to the British Parliament; the great difficulty in making the decision for Independence; the influence of Paine's Common Sense, which shifted the terms of debate; and the political maneuvers that allowed Congress to make the momentous decision.… (more)

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