Saturday, July 5, 2008

Declaration of Independence Day

On this day in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress. This action officially declared the thirteen colonies stretching from what's today Maine to Georgia free of British rule. It was a tremendously monumental occasion. The colonies had already been at war for fifteen months by the time Congress approved the Declaration. With the benefit of hindsight it's easy to see American independence as destiny, the result of foreordained events. But this was not reality. Colonists approached independence reluctantly. Indeed, significant portions of the British Empire (what's today Canada, as well as the Caribbean) refused to join the mainland radicals in their rebellion. Signing the Declaration was an act of treason on the part of the congressional representatives who did so. On the Fourth of July it's worth remembering just how significant a break from the status quo the Declaration was. I've long thought that the name of the holiday should be changed from Independence Day to Declaration of Independence Day because really, that's what we're celebrating. Independence was a much longer process-- it neither began nor ended on July 4, 1776. Fifteen months of battle lay behind the colonists in July 1776, and five more years would lie ahead. Even at Yorktown independence was not secure. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s the independence of the United States was tested, with both domestic and international challenges. Both of these culminated in Americans' second war for independence from Britain, the War of 1812. Treaty negotiations in December 1815 finally quelled so many of the problems, both domestic and international, that plagued the young United States. It wasn't really until then that American independence seemed secure. So, a rather lengthy diversion, but my point is that on the 4th of July we need to remember that we're celebrating the Declaration, and we need an understanding of why that document was so important. The Declaration was no mere repetition of the frustrations colonists had been expressing during the imperial crisis. Rather, it was new. It blamed the king, not Parliament, for the colonies' troubles. The signers were no mere figureheads. They put their necks on the line, literally, by signing their names to what was by all accounts a very gutsy bit of diplomacy.

If you're looking for a great book on the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the clear choice is Pauline Maier's American Scripture. Maier begins with a travel narrative of sorts, explaining what an early American historian sees when she visits the National Archives, and observes hundreds of tourists waiting to view the document. No other significant document in the history of the United States, she notices, seems to create as much reverence, excitement, and patriotism as the Declaration. While the viewers don't necessarily have all of the history under exact command, they have great respect for the document. How the document came to be, and how it developed such popular acclaim become the subjects of the rest of Maier's book. This book truly is a history of the writing of the Declaration. Maier examines the documents that preceded that of July 4, 1776. She finds that in the months preceding July 1776 localities drafted their own declarations, mini-declarations, declaring the cessation of their allegiance to George III and Parliament. These mini-declarations formed the linguistic and stylistic basis for the national declaration. Producing the American Declaration of Independence was a task that fell to a committee of five, which included Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams. The lion's share of the credit for drafting the Declaration is usually accorded to Jefferson, but Maier finds that the committee of five, particularly Adams, was far more influential than previously thought. Ultimately Maier's book is carefully researched and well-crafted. It is beautifully written, and a joy to read. For those who teach American history, as I do, it is an excellent resource to use in an advanced undergraduate class to discuss how to do research and how to write history. I read this book my first year of graduate school and have relied on it heavily ever since.

Practical Details: Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage: 1998) ISBN: 0679779086

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