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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.
In Maier's hands, the Declaration of Independence is brought close to us. She lets us hear the voice of the people as revealed in the other "declarations" of 1776: the local resolutions -- most of which have gone unnoticed over the past two centuries -- that explained, advocated, and justified Independence and undergirded Congress's work. Detective-like, she discloses the origins of key ideas and phrases in the Declaration and unravels the complex story of its drafting and of the group-editing job which angered Thomas Jefferson.
Maier also reveals what happened to the Declaration after the signing and celebration: how it was largely forgotten and then revived to buttress political arguments of the nineteenth century; and, most important, how Abraham Lincoln ensured its persistence as a living force in American society. Finally, she shows how by the very act of venerating the Declaration as we do -- by holding it as sacrosanct, akin to holy writ -- we may actually be betraying its purpose and its power.
How is it that a document that was at points derivative, specious, inflated and politically compromised came to take on almost sacred significance in American culture? In fact, few Americans have bothered to examine much beyond a few choice clauses from the preamble ("all men are created equal... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" etc.). But Maier (The Old Revolutionaries) certainly has. After a succinct and engaging account of the circumstances of the Second Continental Congress, she examines Jefferson's models, particularly the state and local declarations of independence framed in the spring of 1776. Maier then looks carefully at the work's original (though now largely ignored) purpose--the airing of grievances against George III, some of which were localized insults generalized to the nation; some, so vague as to be pointless; some, blinkered versions of complex situations. Having set the stage, Maier then proceeds in the last quarter of her book to describe the evolving significance of the Declaration. Whereas Jefferson began to see it as his best chance at glory with the Republicans, who exploited it as an anti-British instrument, Lincoln used it to refute Stephen Douglas and, ultimately, slavery. It's not a terribly long book and could probably have been shorter--there are superfluities and tautologies (e.g. restating the point that leveling accusations at the king was the way Englishmen declared revolution). But these are stylistic quibbles. As an argument and an introduction to a crucial artifact of American culture, this book will clearly take its place alongside works by Michael Kammen and Garry Wills. 30,000 first printing.