Friday, July 4, 2014

Nonfiction RC #1

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014 reading challenge 2014.

Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence – Garry Wills

Garry Wills was educated in the classics (PHD, Yale, 1961). He has taught courses in American intellectual history at the university level and is a professor emeritus of Northwestern. He has written books on American history, politics, and religion, especially the history of the Roman Catholic Church.  His appearances on CSPAN are many and interesting as the background to the books he was plugging.

In this 1978 book he writes on the intellectual foundations of the Declaration of Independence, which is to say, the bases of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking. Wills emphasizes Jefferson's debt to the moral and political philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment (Frances Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith). Furthermore Wills argues that the influence of Locke on Jefferson has been overemphasized. Just a lay reader, I doubt if his underplaying Locke would go over well with other historians.

Wills proved to my satisfaction that he has ready everything in the primary materials in order to trace the ideas behind the Declaration.  Wills also has a very sensitive feel for 18th century language and how meanings have changed since then. Like later historians such as Pauline Maier and Gordon Wood, Wills stresses the continuity of the Declaration with earlier colonial petitions and English revolutionary thought and the Glorious Revolution.

It is a digressive book and long in spots. But non-experts looking for a workout in intellectual history won’t go wrong with a book by a writer who later won a Pulitzer Prize, for Lincoln at Gettysburg, which examined Lincoln’s consideration of the Declaration as our founding document, for its emphasis on equality.

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