American Scripture

09 Jul

My latest read, finished, fittingly, on Independence Day.

American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier.American-Scripture-9780679454922

Maier tells the reader, “This book tells two different but related stories – that of the original making of the Declaration of Independence and that of its remaking into the document most Americans know, remember, and revere.”

Two books in one.
Two stories.
What a deal.
Both of them enrapturing – at least to me, but then I devour history the way normal men devour sports.

I know the first story pretty well, finding a front row seat in works such as John Adams by McCullough, but what a delight to see it unfold though Maier’s telling.

Still, it was the second story that most intrigued me – partly because it was mostly fresh ground for me, and partly because at times I forgot which document I was reading about, the Declaration or the Bible. Being a lifelong Bibliophile immersed in Scripture, I found the parallels between Scripture and Declaration striking.

surprise! this isn't how it happened

surprise! this isn’t how it happened

Popular myth says that Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration – a claim that loomed ever larger on the horizon of Jefferson’s life in his declining years as he seized upon it as his magnum opus. There was actually a committee of five, and the whole congress had a voice in the editing. The only production details we have are from comments made over two decades after the fact and rely upon the memories and claimed notes of Jefferson and Adams.

What seems clear, is that neither the author(s) nor first recipients had any notion at the time that they were composing “American scripture.” In fact, the Declaration was essentially forgotten until interest revived in it in the early 1820’s – although it was Lincoln (as per Maier) that made the Declaration what it is to most Americans today.

In Lincoln’s hands, the Declaration of Independence became first and foremost a living document for an established society, a set of goals to be realized over time, and so an explanation less of the colonists’ decision to separate from Great Britain than of their victory in the War for Independence…

No less than Thomas Jefferson, then, Lincoln gave expression to a powerful strain in the American mind, not what all Americans thought but what many did. The values he emphasized – equality, human rights, government by consent – had in fact been part and parcel of the Revolution, and as much the subject of controversy then as later. Lincoln and those who shared his convictions did not therefore give the nation a new past or revolutionize the Revolution. But as descendants of the revolutionaries and of their English ancestors, they felt the need for a document that stated those values in a way that could guide the nation, a document that the founding fathers had failed to supply. And so they made one, pouring new wine into an old vessel manufactured for another purpose, creating a testament whose continuing usefulness depended not on the faithfulness with which it described the intentions of the signers but on its capacity to convince and inspire living Americans.

The Declaration of Independence Lincoln left posterity, the “charter of our liberties,” was not and could not have been his solitary creation. It was what the American people chose to make of it, at once a legacy and a new conception, a document that spoke both for the revolutionaries and for their descendants, who confronted issues the country’s fathers had never known or failed to resolve, binding one generation after another in a continuing act of national self-definition.

Let’s see if I’ve got this right then.

We have a Document:
– whose authorship is a tad murky but that was more team than individual effort;
– whose content has transcended said murky origins;
– whose original authorial intent and purpose have also been transcended;
– whose meaningful implications matter more than what the author(s) were thinking at the time (as best we can tell);
– that remains a living document challenging each succeeding generation to wrestle with those implications in this and every succeeding hour.

So, which Document are we talking about?

Take and read.

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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in Books


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