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Making the Declaration of Independence


Pub Date: July 4th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-45492-6
Publisher: Knopf

 Outstanding. Maier (The Old Revolutionaries, 1980, etc.; History/MIT) employs superior historiography and political sensitivity to place the Declaration in its original context, and considers what it has become in the context of American political history. By examining the ``other declarations'' adopted by individual colonies and towns, she identifies common components later incorporated into the Declaration--including lists of grievances and appeals to norms limiting the exercise of authority--that indicate it was an embodiment of familiar sentiments rather than a radical break with established opinion. Jefferson's role as draftsman, and especially the contributions made by other members of the drafting committee and the Continental Congress as a whole, are traced in meticulous detail. Most importantly, we are reminded that in the midst of prosecuting a war the Declaration was only one item on a crowded agenda, and not a prolonged effort to create a document for the ages. Indeed, having served its purpose, the Declaration was basically forgotten for a couple of decades after its adoption. It resurfaced in the partisan politics of the Jeffersonian party, and Lincoln subsequently shaped it into a central symbol of the mature United States. Lincoln's version of the Declaration, however, emphasized human rights as a justification for Union action against rebels, while downplaying its status as an instrument of revolution. When text supposedly quoting the Declaration was inscribed on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial, all traces of a challenge to governmental authority had disappeared. For Maier the ``making'' of the Declaration, then, has been an ongoing project rather than a historical episode. Consequently, she decries the memorialized display of the Declaration in the National Archives. It is not simply a historical watermark to be consigned to the past. Its symbolic power, she asserts, needs still to be wielded by those continuing the search for political justice and freedom. Arguably, the best book ever written on the Declaration of Independence. (First printing of 30,000)