INVENTING AMERICA: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence by Gary Wills

INVENTING AMERICA: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

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The eclectic, vastly inquisitive Gary Wills, an essayist on diverse contemporary topics (Nixon Agonistes, Bare Ruined Choirs) and a classicist by training, here writes on the intellectual foundations of the Declaration of Independence--or, inextricably, the bases of its author's thinking. Although at times impressive, the result makes for neither superb scholarship nor good lay reading. Jefferson, Wills points out repeatedly, borrowed heavily. But, unlike previous analysts, Wills highlights Jefferson's adherence to the moral and political philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment (Frances Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith), downplays the influence of Locke, and dismisses Montesquieu altogether. What difference the shift in emphasis would make, were it proven, is never clear. Also against the common perception, Wills stresses the continuity of the Declaration with earlier colonial petitions and English revolutionary thought (the latter in contradiction to his retreat from Locke). Loosely constructed, the book digresses often, adding interest but not substance. In one chapter--intended to demonstrate that Jefferson has been misread--Wills disputes Erik Erikson's interpretation of Jefferson's fears atop Virginia's Natural Bridge. Despite his great pains to review primary materials, moreover, he does not reveal a familiarity with what historians have written, and those materials he does consult are not always used wisely. Particularly crucial is his oversimplification of Carl Becker's Declaration of Independence (1922), the standard work and the one which connects Locke and the French Enlightenment to Jefferson. Perhaps most significant, however, by his overattentiveness to Jefferson and disregard of all social, psychological, and economic matters, Wills renders his analysis a narrow exercise. As such, it will be consulted by scholars for Wills' scrupulous attention to 18th-century language and careful tracing of ideas, but it does not add materially to our knowledge of America's invention.

Pub Date: June 9th, 1978
Publisher: Doubleday