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American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence

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Published: 2nd Nov 2021 in History

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American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence By Pauline Maier. American Scripture is a historical analysis book published in 1997 by Vintage Publishing and written by Professor Pauline Maier, who was a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializing in the American Revolution.

In American Scripture, Professor Maier takes the reader through the Declaration of Independences' inception with Thomas Jefferson, and it's time being edited by the Second Continental Congress as well as later during the 1860s under President Lincoln, and finally as it secured its place in our history as this sacred symbol in the United States showcasing our values for freedom. Professor Maier's major theme throughout this work is that of doing away with what, in her view, is the myth of how the Declaration of Independence has become something far more significant than its original intention. When it was written, it was the action necessary for the United States break away from Great Britain, however, in modern times its status has been elevated to something viewed as "godlike" outlining the very fabric of American values and principles, and being the prized work of "The most gifted writer of his generation" Thomas Jefferson. Professor Maier covers many ideas themes throughout her work, the two most prominent being, one the conception of the Declaration, and how it was not only down to Thomas Jefferson's perceived genius, but it was done collectively under multiple people. Moreover, second, is the way Professor Maier sees as over the top, almost god-like, worship of the document.

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Professor Maier divides her work into four distinct chapters that cover different periods and ideas about the history of the Declaration. These are presented in a roughly chronological order that showcases a fantastically structured argument. Between these four chapters, she includes an introduction, as well as an epilogue. In both the introduction and epilogue, Professor Maier quickly discusses the history of the document, as well as where it can be located today; in the National Archives. Later on, Professor Maier presents the argument that modern-day presentation of the Declaration of Independence paired so carefully with its "sole author" Thomas Jefferson, it is not only untrue, but that it also presents a damaging tone to not only the document and its ideas and arguments, but also do the virtue of American Independence.

Professor Maier begins Chapter I, "Independence," with the convention of the Second Continental Congress in May 1775. The convention received extreme widespread support from the colonies as it faced the challenge of managing a blossoming country at war. They soon found out that managing a war takes much of the time that would have been used to discuss the country's future and move them towards independence "strained the sense of community with which the Congress began." The Second Continental Congress came together to declare Independence from Great Britain, and to agree to the commissioning of the drafting of the Declaration, and to adopt it as its explanation for declaring Independence. The way the reader is shown Congress' decision in favor of declaring independence is exceptionally informative, Professor Maier also explores the Various delegates representing at the convention.

In Chapter 2, Professor Maier looks back upon previous declarations in an effort to trace the origins of the now-famous document. The original American Colonies throughout the North American continent created such documents declaring their reasoning and the advantages they would gain from taking their power back from the Crown, many of which took massive inspiration from The Bill of Rights of 1689 in which the English people set limitations on the power of the British monarch. Professor Maier finds it odd that as modern-day humans, we forget many of these earlier structure changing documents in favor of our national infatuation the Declaration of Independence.

Professor Maier, in Chapter III "Jefferson and His Editors," is an excellent portion of the work that follows Thomas Jefferson took on the occasion of constructing the original document. From Thomas Jefferson's original drafting to his committee, to the Second Continental Congress taking the document and making significant changes. Professor Maier primarily uses this chapter to remove the myth that the document was created by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson alone. One thing Professor Maier particularly highlights is that the 18th-century man "did not need Jefferson to remind them" that their independence from Britain would not merely be about breaking off the current conflict, but more about the creation of something much more significant. They understood the political and economic gains that could happen from their advantageous independence.

In Chapter IV, "American Scripture," Professor Maier looks at the Declaration through its point in time in our country's history.

Primarily the lack of emphasis the Federalists took on the case with reference to the document. Its return to prominence under Thomas Jefferson's term as an executive power and the eventual elevation that the document took around the point in time of the American Civil War to something praised almost religiously. Professor Maier finishes her work by discussing the impact on President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, due to the fact that she saw Thomas Jefferson's words as a "standard for the future."

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A major theme throughout this book is the comparison of previous declarations made by original colonies on the North American continent succeed from the authority of the Crown, noting at least fifty 'declarations' that were made in colonial American, many tens of years prior to the Declaration of Independence coming into effect on, July 4, 1776. Professor Maier navigates her way to show the full history from the beginning of the want for independence. To her, the beginning of this had its origins during the American Revolution, and even previously, when Englishmen attempted to restrain the power of the Crown. Maier shows the historical connection with these British documents and the later American ones, showing that the average American was in someways involved in the ideas presented, a considerable change from those older British documents. It gave ordinary people, the majority of who lived in this new world, their own say in the matter. She points out that these choices prove that the want for widespread independence was from the bottom up rather than the top down. She also touches on the fact of a lack of rebellion in the history of Great Britain, and how the Americans had come to a sort of acceptance of their right to fight back against the power; As there had never been a higher level of government in many of the colonies like in Great Britain with their parliament.

I believe that Professor Maier's work is a fantastic work that portrays the Declaration of Independence. She covers the construction thought to its place in our modern society. She argues that Thomas Jefferson did not complete the monumental task of creating this document alone, but with the help of others and that he alone should not be "worshipped" as if he completed a godlike achievement. Even at the present point in time, the Declaration is stored in the National Archives, as Maier puts it, ready to be "worshipped" by the ordinary American. The result of Maier's work here is the narrative that is not worship to men of the past who created the document, but more of who they were, and how they did their job in creating it, and their documentation of it — also covering the transformation from document declaring our independence to godlike being. She covered the main point of her book - that American independence was not down to one person, but it was the collective work of the American people and their values and beliefs. The Declaration was not merely constructed by one author but was a process as she defines in her subtitle "Making the declaration of independence" It was a long process that lasted beyond the convention of the Second Continental Congress in the summer of 1776 and much far beyond the July in 1776. It has lasted to this day as modern Americans still restructure and evaluate the meaning of freedom and independence.

It is my opinion that American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence shows a clear narrative from Professor Pauline Maier that shows the original history of the document's connection with the past in early colonial America as well as in England as well as the famous document's creation, that was not the work of one man alone. As well as the massive effect the Second Continental Congress had in revising the work and all the way to the present day, where she beautifully clears the air surrounding the truth behind the history of the document. Professor Maier took a great deal of care when constructing her work to give fair credit to those involved, specifically Thomas Jefferson, but also to make sure that everyone should rightfully be remembered for its creation. Furthermore, finally, in an attempt to bring the document back down to earth in a sense, as she tries to take it down from what she sees as it has its elevated godlike position among Americans.

Work Cited

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence. Vintage. 26 May 1998.

 

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