D A N G E R O U S
D E C L A R A T I O N?
PAULINE Maier is an American historian who does not disdain the office of storyteller to the American people. She tells here a story she rightly thinks worth telling: how in the year following Lexington and Concord the Continental Congress moved to the decision to fight for national independence; how Americans supported and explained the decision in more than ninety ``other declarations of independence'' (instructions to congressional delegates and to state representatives, town-meeting resolutions, state-constitution preambles, and other documents); and how the Declaration
American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,
by Pauline Maier (Knopf, 352 pp., $27.50)
of Independence of July 4, 1776, was shaped. She goes on to the subsequent history of the Declaration, as it became an authority appealed to in serious political disputes and an object of popular veneration.
Professor Maier is not only an unashamed but also an artful storyteller: propelling the narrative smoothly and enlivening it with colorful detail, never showing impatience or condescension. Her care to be accurate and her judiciousness are evident, which not only is good in itself but also helps commend what she writes to today's general reader, who approaches his nation's past fearful of being thought gullible and distrusting patriotic fervor.
Such a reader may be reassured by Professor Maier's advance tip that Thomas Jefferson's reputation as author of the Declaration and Lincoln's for having canonized it will undergo some deflation. And indeed we learn that all the particulars in the Declaration's indictment of the King along with its theory of revolution are scattered about in the ``other declarations'' that Professor Maier has brought to light. We find that Jefferson drafted the Declaration as one member of a committee, whose other members changed what he wrote, and that the Congress itself did a thorough editing job on the draft, improving its style, increasing its persuasiveness, and galling Jefferson. Yet in the end we know nothing that would deny Jefferson the principal credit for having so clearly and convincingly expressed ``the American mind'' -- which is all he claimed to do.
Professor Maier shows that the apotheosis of the Declaration began early, forwarded by Jefferson himself, and that it was early made to serve as an unassailable standard for the judgment of measures and institutions. She adduces precedents for virtually every element of Lincoln's exposition of the Declaration's meaning. Yet finally Lincoln must be awarded the credit for having established what became the nation's understanding of the Declaration. So our heroes are left to us, no longer alone, but their stature undiminished.
Our heroes? It is no secret to readers of NATIONAL REVIEW that one of the deepest fault lines in present-day conservatism has to do with the Declaration of Independence: to extol it or deplore it, to argue from it or to argue it away. Some see in Jefferson's abstract propositions a threat to sound political practice and in Lincoln's handling of them an incitement to unceasing striving for a utopian egalitarianism.
Professor Maier's honest account gives no aid to attempts (made by the Left these days more than by the Right) to modify the plain universality of ``all men'' -- whatever the mental reservations or sub-mental misconstruing of some who assented to the words. While giving serious attention to the grievances that are the bulk of the Declaration, she does not commit the fallacy of treating what precedes them as irrelevant embellishment. Although she is misled into seeing a rhetorical rather than logical order in the sequence of ``self-evident truths,'' the indispensability of those truths to the justification of independence is clear to her. Abstract theory is, after all, just what one would expect in the Congress's Declaration, for it is the sort of thing that is found in the ``other declarations'' that Professor Maier so helpfully presents; the once-prominent appeal to ``ancient rights and liberties'' has disappeared. Professor Maier does report that through the 1780s the doctrinal portion of the Declaration was largely ignored, for example in July 4 celebrations. But that may reflect the broad acceptance of the ``political orthodoxy'' which it had stated. There is certainly enough abstractness in contemporaneous state constitutions and bills of rights to satisfy the most doctrinaire.
It may trouble some conservatives that the first use of the Declaration as a partisan weapon was by Jeffersonians against Federalists in the 1790s. In response the Federalists, having before ignored the document, now disparaged it. Or so goes the ``standard story,'' as Professor Maier calls it, perhaps hinting at justified doubts about its correctness. Jeffersonians certainly used the Declaration to excite anti-British feelings and deflect them onto the Federalists, and they lauded the Declaration in order to laud its author, their party's head. The Federalists were in an awkward position; but evidence is given to show that they deprecated Jefferson's authorship more than that they deprecated the Declaration itself. And when amicable Anglo-American relations came to prevail, the Declaration became a supra-partisan bond of national feeling.
It became truly controversial only when it was used against slavery. The guardians of that institution met the challenge by deferring to the status of the Declaration and fabricating distortions of its doctrines, as did Lincoln's rival, Douglas; or, more rationally, by denying their truth, as did Calhoun, supplanting one theory by another -- deferring, it may be, to the American need for doctrine.
Nevertheless, Professor Maier evinces historical qualms when facing Lincoln's interpretation of the Declaration, going so far as to write that ``in many ways, Douglas's history was more faithful to the past and to the views of Thomas Jefferson.'' (Douglas's ``history'' was that ``all men'' meant ``all Englishmen.'') She may mean only that the Declaration was composed for the immediate purposes of 1776. But composed as it was, it could also be (in Jefferson's view) a ``signal'' to awaken all men to their rights and, what is almost the same thing, ``a stumbling-block'' (in Lincoln's words) to the ``harbingers of re-appearing tyranny.'' And it is hardly a step beyond to see in it (Lincoln again) ``a standard maxim for free society.''
It may be the peculiar content and function of Lincoln's ``standard maxim'' that bothers Pauline Maier -- and certainly excites misgivings in many conservatives. For Lincoln teaches that the Declaration posits equality as the object of society: ``a fair chance in the race of life'' for all, which must always be sought even if it is unattainable. The Declaration, on the other hand, recognized the legitimacy, up until 1776 or thereabouts, of governments in America that showed no interest in ``progressive improvement.''
In the end Professor Maier yields to Lincoln's outlook. She is, after all, no conservative. But more: she glimpses how reflection on the Declaration and the concrete events of which it was a part led Lincoln to his position. It could be put this way: Lincoln grasped the Declaration as a whole, and hence saw that the inalienable rights to ``life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'' must be understood so as to allow for their being secured by pledges of ``lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.''
Conservatives critical of the Declaration or its use might be advised to follow Lincoln's example and look at it all. They will find, for instance, that ``prudence will dictate'' a degree of resistance to change; and that ``governments are instituted among men'' to secure the rights of nobody else.
The title American Scripture calls attention to the theme with which this book opens and closes. In the Introduction Professor Maier makes a less-than-reverent pilgrimage to the National Archives, where the Declaration is enshrined as if to be worshipped. In the Epilogue she visits the Jefferson Memorial, its temple walls inscribed with a truncated Declaration, as the Decalogue may be seen in a church. In between she has shown early-nineteenth-century Americans beginning to sacralize the document, using religious language in connection with it: ``reverence,'' ``sacred,'' ``holy'' -- all Jefferson's words. She disapproves of this idolatry, as she thinks it. ``Why,'' she asks, viewing the devotion at the altar in the Archives, ``should the American people file by, looking up reverentially at a document that was and is their creation, as if it were handed down by God, or were the work of superhuman men?''
The answer is this: Precisely in order to learn that the document is their creation -- that the American nation's powers are just because they are derived from the consent of the governed. And also to learn that their creating and sustaining act is to be guided by a purpose not of their creation: to secure rights given by an incomparably higher Creator to those whom that Creator made equal. They are not taught that the document is their creation in the most radical sense: it does not express freely or otherwise chosen values; it states self-evident truths. But though they are self-evident, passion and interest may contend against reason; and so wise statesmen, such as Jefferson, call on the auxiliaries of sentiment. (That the ``blood of our heroes'' has been shed for the ``creed of our political faith'' does not make its articles any truer, but it does make them more precious.)
Professor Maier fears that this kind of ``symbolism undercuts the exercise of public responsibilities.'' Expunge it, and then let ``interests clash and argument prosper.'' She offers no historical evidence to support her apprehensions. And it seems that, if there is agreement on premises and principles, argument about their interpretation and application can prosper. If there is not (``a house divided''), dangerous arguments may prosper. And if there is agreement that premises and principles are values, no argument may prosper. Interests will of course clash.
One more point: A text recognizing God as creator, judge, and providential governor of the world might well be thought of as in some sense sacred.