Since 1776, the Declaration of Independence has assumed a near-biblical status in America’s national mythology—its opening paragraphs memorized by schoolchildren, its formulation of liberal principles of equality and self-government venerated by citizens of all political stripes. It still provides a trump card for its chief author, Thomas Jefferson, who in recent years has been increasingly scorned for the libertarian elements of his thought and for his slaveholding.
But in truth the Declaration wasn’t quite the singular achievement we remember it to be. As it turns out, nearly 100 other “declarations of independence” had already been issued in the months leading up to July 4th, 1776, by states, towns, counties, and assorted other bodies. The Declaration of Independence endorsed at the Continental Congress that July wasn’t a bolt out of the blue: It was more like a final draft in a loose, many-centered, wide-ranging process, authored not by one man but by a chorus of voices in a fledgling nation whose people had caught independence fever and were suddenly proclaiming it with contagious enthusiasm.
In the spring of 1776, talk of independence was everywhere. In that heady but fearful time, with the Continental Army already at war against British troops, military battalions in Pennsylvania endorsed independence. So did mechanics in New York and grand jurors in South Carolina. Declarations of separation from the Crown were issued, too, by the people of Topsfield, Massachusetts; of King’s District, New York (part of Albany County); of Anne Arundel Country, Maryland—and by almost every colonial assembly.
Today, when it often feels as if Americans are spiraling apart, becoming less connected to our political leaders and less bound to one another, it’s worth remembering what made independence possible wasn’t just a spirit of rebellion; it was the way that spirit was harnessed to a newfound commitment to self-government across the diverse colonies. What we celebrate today isn’t only the colonists’ unity in rejecting British rule but also the condition that made it possible: the trust that the colonists placed a group of leaders tasked with a historic decision, and the fidelity those leaders showed to the people’s wishes. We celebrate not just independence but also democracy.
For this deeper understanding of the Declaration’s origins, we can thank the late Pauline Maier, one of the great historians of the revolutionary period, whose 1997 book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence recovered these rich documents and plumbed their importance in the story of the republic. Somehow, despite being published in a time of rampant “Founders Chic”—alongside a raft of best-selling biographies by Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and others—Maier’s more cerebral, analytical work never penetrated the popular consciousness. Yet the new account it gave of the Declaration’s genesis remains a watershed in the historiography of our nation’s foundational document.
American Scripture is the story of the how the Declaration of Independence came to be written and how it later came to be enshrined as the quintessential American statement of human equality. It joins a long line of other historical accounts, from Carl Becker’s in the 1920s to Garry Wills’s in the 1970s. What distinguished Maier’s history was the evidence she marshaled to show that Jefferson’s Declaration, long hailed as the epitome of his unique intellect and importance as an Enlightenment philosopher, was anything but the work of a lone, brilliant mind.
For one thing, as historians know well, Jefferson’s draft was worked over by a committee of the Continental Congress that included Benjamin Franklin and John Adams (probably the colonies’ most august political thinker until the younger James Madison reached his full powers), and by the Continental Congress as a whole. But Maier’s more important discovery—or rediscovery, really, since they’d been compiled in an important 19th century book of primary documents—was the resurrection of these other, prior declarations of independence, which showed the Declaration to be the culmination of a set of ideas that had been burgeoning for months.
In 1776, bonds between the colonists and Britain were as frayed as ever. Tensions had been growing since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, but even after the 1770 Boston Massacre or the 1773 Boston Tea Party, talk of independence remained marginal. Even after Lexington and Concord, most Americans saw themselves as loyal subjects of King George III. They sought only a redress of a range of grievances relating to taxation, representation in government, and other issues.
But the experience of being at war deepened feelings of enmity, and the intransigence of the king’s public statements—from an October 1775 speech to Parliament that reached America in January, to his reply to a petition he received from the City of London, which Americans learned about in May—led colonists to despair of reconciliation. Moreover, the widespread popularity of Thomas Paine’s radical tract Common Sense—which not only argued that it was irrational to be ruled by a government across the sea, but took aim at monarchy altogether, ecstatically claiming that “the birth-day of a new world is at hand”—reinforced the conviction that a divorce was not just necessary but desirable.
Colonists expressed this newfound conviction in the “declarations of independence” that Maier discovered. A handful of these were self-consciously drafted in the same spirit as the Declaration we know today—proclamations issued by Virginia or New Jersey that formally disavowed British rule as a prologue to establishing their own constitutions. Others were simply enunciations of the sentiments of bodies that lacked formal political power but wished to take part in a conversation occurring across the colonies. Several came in the form of instructions issued by colonial legislatures to their congressional delegates, who had assembled in Philadelphia and were by the spring of 1776 taking up the question of independence. The state and local proclamations were meant to contribute to—to be in conversation with—the grand debates and discussions taking place in Philadelphia.
The everyday colonists’ declarations of independence from Britain give evidence that they considered the work of their appointed delegates to be of consummate importance. Assertive as they were in challenging the king, they deferred to what one town called “the well-known wisdom, prudence, justice, and integrity of that honourable body the Continental Congress.” Their conception of democracy was predicated on a regard for and trust in their chosen leaders. And the leaders, in turn, had regard for the will of the people. As one delegate to the Continental Congress put it, Congress wouldn’t call for a formal split until “the voice of the people drove us into it,” since “without them, our declarations could not be carried into effect.”
The documents that the people drafted exhibited a striking consistency in their reasoning and language. In place of Paine’s sweeping calls for a new age of mankind, colonists offered detailed, particular, pragmatic reasons for severing their bonds with Britain. The “declaration” was a familiar form, a genre, with roots in British politics, and colonists emulated past declarations, especially the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, which had justified the deposition of King James II. Following this form, colonists enumerated the specific wrongs committed by King George, citing mainly the offenses of the last two years—especially the Prohibitory Act of 1775, which blockaded American ports—and not the longer train of incidents dating to the 1760s. Also common to most of these documents was the claim that the call for separation was a last resort—a step taken only because the king had rejected their previous entreaties and no alternatives remained.
In this climate, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, on June 7, 1776, proposed to the Continental Congress that the colonies should be “free and independent states.” The Congress then named a drafting committee—which came to be called the Committee of Five—consisting of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston of New York. Jefferson, recognized as an eloquent writer, produced the first draft, borrowing ideas and tropes that were in the assorted declarations and that were, more generally, in the colonial air. (“He was no Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God,” Maier noted, “but a man who had to prepare a written text with little time to waste and who … drew on earlier documents of his own and other people’s creation.”) In particular, he mimicked the practice of listing the particulars of King George’s “abuses and usurpations” that warranted the break: failing to recognize colonial laws; obstructing colonial trade; imposing oppressive taxes; quartering troops in colonists’ homes; and so forth. Like the previous documents, too, Jefferson’s framed the assertion of independence as a last resort, not undertaken “for light and transient causes.” On the contrary, he wrote, the colonists had repeatedly “petitioned for redress in the most humble terms,” but “our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”
The Continental Congress edited Jefferson’s draft, making its most extensive changes on the bill of particulars against King George, and doing little to the now-famous first two paragraphs. Over time, the Declaration’s agreeable cadences, its well-articulating reasoning, and its expressed intention of respecting “the opinions of mankind”—along with, of course, the enormous political significance of the separation from Britain that it announced—made it the subject of worldwide attention. The Enlightenment ideas about self-government so eloquently expressed in its opening words have not only buttressed American politicians and activists of every persuasion but have also inspired movements for national autonomy around the world. Yet as much as we admire these noble articulations of liberal principles, its main goal was to set forth a clear-cut case against King George and his mistreatment of his American subjects.
It doesn’t diminish Jefferson or his colleagues on the Committee of Five to recognize that contrary to our national mythology, they weren’t producing an original work of political philosophy. The job of politicians—and intellectuals, for that matter (and Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams were obviously both)—typically isn’t primarily to generate brand-new ideas of whose wisdom they then try to persuade the public. More often they seek to find the words to convey ideas that they intuit will strike a chord with a wider audience. Jefferson himself said the Declaration of Independence was meant to be “an expression of the American mind.”
Pauline Maier’s history of the Declaration elevates the role of “the people” in revolutionary history. She belonged to a generation of historians who tried to expand the study of the past beyond “great men” to focus on regular citizens. American Scripture did that, broadening our understanding of how the Declaration of Independence came to be written—even if that broadened understanding hasn’t yet reached far beyond the academy’s walls. Most people still tend to see the Declaration as something like a work of philosophy, rather than an instrument of concrete political needs. Restoring the document, as Maier did, to its immediate place and time—not just Philadelphia but the whole of colonial America, in the months when the fervor for independence was spreading—allows us to see it as an example of what effective democratic politics can look like, with citizens communicating, formally and informally, with respected leaders.
The colonists’ belief in popular sovereignty involved trusting that their delegates would carry out the people’s sentiment—and by the same token, the delegates’ understanding of their roles involved recognizing their obligation to honor the people’s instructions. Today, the mutual trust between the public and its elected leaders on which democracy depends seems to be in short supply. But its preciousness is worth celebrating.
Author: David Greenberg