Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day, 2017

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence – Pauline Maier

The Declaration of Independence has become a sacred document for us Americans. Noting the quasi-religious imagery of its display at the National Archives, Maier asks how did a document drafted for a practical purpose become a sacred document. In this book, Maier examines how the Declaration of Independence was drafted and edited; how independence was announced to the people; and about how American people gradually re-defined it into a document whose wording has provided the American creed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I learned a lot in the first part of the book where Maier goes over how slow people were to get to the point where they thought independence was the right course. Maier explains that by 1774 the colonists had worked out the idea that the British Empire could be composed of countries with local legislatures united under the Crown, in other words, what the modern British Commonwealth became. The colonists were done with Parliamentary authority and tied only to the king. They deeply resented the withdrawal of the protection of the king in the Prohibitory Act. People take it personally, being declared outlaws and rebels. When Thomas Paine in Common Sense referred to George III as "the royal brute," it was a candidly seditious argument in support of independence that really captured people’s attention. A strong feeling of colonial unity was also a results of the events at Lexington.

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May, 1776. The delegates expected to decide how to proceed in light of changes since the First Continental Congress late in 1774 and issue policy statements about reconciliation with the mother country. But Lexington and Concord changed the situation to the extent that the Congress found itself the de facto government of a nation at war. They had to raise an army and navy, manage the war effort, guide Indian affairs and many other pressing duties.

I was impressed by how careful and deliberate leaders were about declaring independence, as they didn’t want to proceed further and faster than people would support their decisions. Delegations to the Second Continental Congress wanted direct orders from their colonies before they started talking about independence. Though some states were slow, the delegations eventually got these orders.

Maier points out that in fact, there were many declarations of independence in various local areas so the Continental Congress was not the only forum where independence was discussed. Local declarations showed the mobilization of the people and their thinking about independence. Many local declarations list the grievances that are familiar to us because of the Declaration that Jefferson drafted; for example: British contempt of reconciliation, killings by troops, the stern Prohibitory Act, the use of German-speaking mercenaries in colonies, stirring up the savages the take up the hatchet.

In a town called Ashby, Massachusetts, in the north central part of the state, the people said, `If Congress decides to vote for independence, then we, the inhabitants of Ashby, will most solemnly defend that decision with our lives and fortunes.' Even people in remote places, Maier observes, had profound confidence that their opinion made a difference the course of human affairs. Nowadays we often focus so much on The Founding Fathers that we neglect the key point that ordinary people were part of the conversation.

The Congress assigned to Jefferson the job of drafting the Declaration. Editing and debate began on July 1. Word changes both moderated language and made it more extreme. Jefferson’s draft blamed the King both for introducing slavery into the Americas and for offering freedom to slaves if they fought for the Loyalists. The Congress, under the influence of the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, struck all that wording out. Jefferson had much author’s pride in his perfect prose and was therefore not happy with the editing. Good thing he can’t see his memorial where the right to revolution when the government violates the social compact – which Jefferson thought most important – is not written on the wall. 

Maier is extremely careful to marshal facts to support her assertions so the copious evidence may try the general reader, who might think, “Okay, you make a good case. Now let’s move on.” This is the only drawback to a very interesting book.

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