Garry Wills provides a critical examination of the Declaration of Independence. In light of the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, Wills conducted a five-year study of the most important document in American history. He writes a behind the scenes narrative of Jefferson's Declaration in relation to the initial Declaration, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, which many readers of US history may not be familiar with. Unless one has taken a course that concentrates in dissecting this important document bit by bit, the average individual will be surprised with the contents in Inventing America. Wills emphasizes how the Declaration has been underrated and misstated, and he clarifies the misstatements, such as the date the document was signed and its sole purpose of being.
Wills takes the Declaration beyond its national symbolism and general aspects. The book is divided into five parts, which show the significance of the Declaration as a Revolutionary, Scientific, Moral, Sentimental, and National paper. Indeed, he makes references to the most important phrases and passages in the document, "the pursuit of happiness" and "All men are created equal." However, he begins his study with Thomas Jefferson's original concept, which was derived from European models of Enlightenment thinking. Jefferson took his ideas from Francis Hutcheson and the Scottish Enlightenment, but Wills also debates and analyzes the Lockean orthodoxy that scholars, such as Carl Becker has attested to in the past.
The Declaration was the first step towards independence. However, it did not initially act as legal document, but rather a propaganda tool for a call for action. It was the foundation that led to further documentation and legal declaration of independence and individual rights for the colonies, which would eventually evolve to the Articles of Confederation of 1777 and the United States Constitution of 1783. This information is enriching to know and understand.
Wills Inventing America is a must read. His reexamination of the Declaration will bring a better understanding of the development of human rights in the United States, and for one to better appreciate how it came to be. After reading the book, it may allow readers to re-read the Declaration with much more clarity.
Wills' "Inventing America" is a good, though somewhat mixed, effort in deconstructing the Declaration of Independence. The language and meaning of the Declaration are analyzed in the context of the times, which were at the height of the Enlightenment. In addition, some factual basics of the Declaration are reexamined.
The book is equal parts the Declaration and the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and others. Contrary to the view of many in the 20th century that Jefferson was a Lockean individualist who stressed private property rights, the author shows that Scottish moral philosophers, the leading intellectuals and teachers of the mid 18th century, exerted by far the most influence on Jefferson. An essential aspect of their thinking was that man had an innate moral sense which resulted in the exercise of "benevolence" towards their fellow men. It was a distinctly social orientation. The author is rather convincing in demonstrating that the Declaration gains meaning only when understood as reflecting that thinking. Jefferson's original effort, which he much preferred, is contrasted with the final version, edited by the whole Congress, throughout the book and reinforces the author's insights.
There are any number of other clarifications. Petitioning the King or Parliament to seek redress for wrongs was a well-established tradition. The Continental Congress in 1774-75 did just that. Those petitions were enumerated in the Declaration. The American Revolution was viewed as similar to the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, where an oppressive king was dethroned. The American Revolution was not considered to be a rebellion or a revolt, but an exercise of the rights of Englishmen. The Declaration of Independence was a restatement of the actual independence that was declared by vote by the Continental Congress on July 2, not the Fourth. Furthermore, the signing of the Declaration by most, but not all of the attendees of the Congress, occurred on August 2, not the Fourth. Interestingly, the Declaration during the Revolutionary period was not the exalted document that it has become. In many ways it was regarded as basically necessary to secure a treaty with France to support the colonies' war effort; it was a means to an end, not the end.
There is much to learn in this book, but it is not without its problems. The chronology and the discussion of important documents surrounding the Declaration during the time of the Congress in the mid-1770s are deficient. The new science of the era, especially all of the observing and cataloguing of details, receives far too much emphasis. The author is continually taking a detour here and there to explore some thought of the times with the yield often not worth the detour. A subject not broached whatsoever, is the legitimacy of the Scottish views of innate moral sensibilities. Those along with natural rights thinking would be considered by many to be no more than ungrounded optimistic faith, hardly anything to base fundamental understandings on. Despite its deficiencies, the book is worthwhile.
on December 16, 2002
Garry Wills "Inventing America" is a interesting and unconventional take on the thought of Thomas Jefferson and his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Wills rejects the traditional "Lockean" view and instead puts forward a different and, I believe, valid hypothesis. Wills finds the philosophy of the Declaration in Jefferson's reading of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, Francis Hutchenson, Thomas Reid, David Hume, and Lord Kames. These thinkers beleived, along with Jefferson, that man had an inate "moral sense" which man him human and governed the affairs of society. Wills book starts out slow when talking about the Decalrations beginnings, and the early Enlightenment influence, but picks up when he relates these thought to Jefferson.
Chapters 16 and 22 are particularly good since they deal with Jefferson's views on slavery. Wills correctly shows Jefferson always thought blacks fully human with a moral sense and integrity. Although he found their intelligence possibly below other races he never rejected their humanity nor their right "as a people" to be free. Chapter 22 show the fallacies behind modern critisism about simply "freeing" the slaves. Wills shows how unrealistic and quite impossible a wholesale emancipation in colonial Virginia would have been. Instead Jefferson wants freedom and education for the blacks, in their own nation, colinized to Africa where they could live free "as a people". Overall a great book.
on February 14, 2002
Garry Wills' Inventing America is clearly a labor of love. Its learned, precise, and passionate scholarship effectively skewers much of the scholarship that preceded it. Wills forcefully repudiates the common assertion (derived largely from Carl Becker's important work) that the Declaration of Independence is an utterly Lockean document. Instead, Wills shows that Thomas Jefferson was only slightly influenced by Locke, and was instead completely a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. By placing key terms and phrases in the context of 18th century America, Wills brings the meaning of the Declaration to life, and alters its existence from a vague philosophical statement that we merely "see" rather than "read" into a specific political document with very particular meanings and functions.
It is a shame that this book is out of print; it should be required reading to students of the history of American Independence.
on December 20, 2013
It took me a YEAR to read this book; no lie. A YEAR. I am largely self-educated (I have degrees, but the time I spent overseas and in other places out of traditional school I used to read books, unlike most everyone else), and this book challenged me in ways no other book had before or since. It has to do with the origin of benevolence. I was raised strict religious: very strict, cult-like, separated from the secular world; this environment was a one-way street: I put forth into it, it gave me nothing back. This book changed my mind.
I had to, in examining the principles of the origin of benevolence, change my soul. And I did. This book changed my life. The introduction, to me, of Hutchesonian ideas, was worth the slog. I have not believed in Locke since, and that was more than 30 years ago.
Ask yourself: "Where does 'Love/Benevolence come from?" Family? Transitory and mortal: it's what most people believe in. Church? A building: the inhabitants are all human. A belief in 'God'? A fiction. Witness of Nature, as the evidence of God? It's what came through in the ideas of the US Declaration of Independence.
I did, actually, after reading this book, decide to continue believing in a 'God', a creator and father-figure, knowing it is a total fiction. But it calms my mind, and makes me a functional, and positive human, social being. This book did, very much, change the direction of my life; and for that, it is an amazing work.
I won't say it's a fun read; it's not. But for those who need it,. it's what is needed. I needed it, and it did the job. I have owned a copy of this book since I was 18 years old, now almost 30 years, and will never be without one.
on October 8, 2015
Before “American Sphinx” by Joseph Ellis (1996), and “American Scripture” by Pauline Maier (1997), there was “Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” by Garry Wills. Published in 1978, Wills’ was the first popular book to closely examine the vast storehouse of Enlightenment literature that influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence, while at the same time revealing Thomas Jefferson as brilliant but somewhat quirky. While Ellis and Maier are well-versed in early American history and are exceptionally fine writers, they lack the sheer intellectual gravitas and commanding writing style of Wills. Ellis seems to relish exposing Jefferson’s many weaknesses, while Maier takes the high road. She examines the various European philosophers that Jefferson drew upon, and how the Declaration’s ideas influenced future generations of Americans, notably Abraham Lincoln. Wills, on the other hand, takes the issue of Jefferson and the Declaration to an entirely different level.
In Wills’ narrative, the Founding Fathers are high-minded but human after all. They're well-read on Enlightenment ideals that, in turn, they employed to justify breaking free of the arbitrary rule of kings and then applied to creating a nation based on the rule of law. Unlike several U.S. historians (Dumas Malone, Ralph Ketchum and Forest McDonald come to mind), Wills does not take sides. For example, he is neither a Jeffersonian nor a Hamiltonian. Wills’ is a world ideas and how they shaped U.S. history, and second a world of political players. Indeed, he takes exception with historians who, for example, raise up Jefferson at the expense of tearing down Hamilton, and vice versa.
English philosopher John Locke has gotten much of the credit as Jefferson’s source material for composing the first draft of the Declaration. Wills, however, makes a compelling case for the influence of Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson as Jefferson’s primary source. For example, the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is purely Hutchesonian. Why has Hutcheson’s influence been overlooked until now? Because, says Wills, Jefferson’s first library burned to the ground, thereby destroying evidence of the Virginian having read Hutcheson in his formative years. How can Wills be certain of the Scot’s influence? Because Jefferson’s tutor William Small was a Scot and an ardent reader of Hutcheson, who no double influenced young Jefferson while he was being schooled in Williamsburg. Hutcheson was the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, and therefore a man widely read by America’s intelligentsia. Equally compelling, he was against slavery on purely moral grounds, which is evident in Jefferson’s initial draft that included a call for the abolition of slavery, a call stricken out by the Continental Congress at large. As far as Locke goes, the most traceable influence he had on Jefferson was in the area of religious tolerance. Elsewhere, when Jefferson refers to Locke, it is to his role in the major Enlightenment trinity (of Bacon, Newton, and Locke), where the contribution was epistemological. Wills discusses the evidence on Jefferson of other Scottish philosophers as well, including Lord Kames and Thomas Reid.
Also interesting is Wills’ take on the revolution itself. The revolution was more evolution than revolution, not an overthrow of the existing order, but a redress of grievances that resulted in separation from the mother country. “There was no ‘overturn’ of a central government in the American Revolution,” writes Wills, “no decapitated king in Paris, no basement execution of a czar.” The accepted word for violent withdrawal from allegiance was “revolt,” not revolution, he says. “Americans were willing to call their actions a revolution precisely because it was an orderly and legal procedure.”
The strength of Wills’ account is that he examines every issue from several points of view, like an attorney arguing a case, point by point, pro and con, until evidence is more than sufficient to draw a compelling conclusion. Wills’ account is scholarly but imminently readably. Five stars.
on June 11, 2002
While being an intellectual tour-de-force, the book is at the same time something of a detective novel, as Wills traces Jeffeson's ideas expessed in the Declaration of Independence back to the Scottish Enlightment. Not only is it intellectually exciting, it also explains what Jeffferson probably meant by such terms as "all men are born equal" and "the pursuit of happiness." Without this understanding, I doubt if we can honestly make sense of one of the most important documents in American, and perhaps one should say, Scottish, history.
on September 10, 2013
This is a major work of history--of American history in particular. It lays bare important aspects of what kind of thinking (epistemological foundations) of the key players involved in the shaping of the Declaration of Independence and of the US constitution. It is a book not just to be read once but to be revisited--if one has the time and interest in doing so.
Above all this is a serious and seminal work of historiography--carefully crafted, extensively researched, elegant in its style.
Recommended most highly to any serious student of American politics and history--the shaping of the American mind and, as the title suggests, the invention of that "thing" we now call America.
on November 30, 2007
As is well known, or should be well known, the American Declaration of Independence is a classic 18th century Enlightenment document. Professor Wills has gone through his paces in order to evaluate virtually every possible idea that might have influenced Thomas Jefferson (and the other committeemen who worked on the document) as they put together not only a list of grievances but set the framework for a republican government. Wills looks at the Declaration as a revolutionary charter, a scientific paper, a moral paper, a sentimental paper (in the 18th century sense of the word) and finally as a national symbol. I would argue that in some cases the good professor has overdone it, especially on the influences of the scientific revolution but overall he does a creditable job for those who are more than general readers but less than specialists on the document, the Enlightenment or this period of American History. This book is not for amateurs.
on August 9, 2003
Garry Wills succeeds in getting the reader inside the cultural world of Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers. In this effort, he disentangles what we make of the Declaration of Independence in modern culture from its meaning for the authors and readers of 1776, and the differences between Jefferson's version and that finally approved by the Continental Congress. The science, morals, and sentiments of 18th century culture were all factors that played strongly in what Jefferson wrote.
Seriously, how could Jefferson write that it is self-evident that all men are created equal while personally holding slaves? Discussed at length, then balanced by discussion of 18th century obsessions with the sentiments one experiences in the presence of a natural wonder, such as the natural bridge of Virginia. The attempt by 18th century philosophers to develop mathematical theories of happiness and virtue has to evoke a chuckle in any reader. But... it was part of an Enlightenment worldview seeking mechanical models of human behavior and society. This enthusiasm for scientific approach to the affairs of life also resulted in the search for governmental machinery to run smoothly and maintain order and liberty simultaneously, that culminated in the U.S. Constitution thirteen years later.
Wills discusses at length the importance and meaning of the specific additions and deletions from Jefferson's draft to the final version, and Jefferson's lifelong preference for his original, unedited version. The number of seeming detours that the author makes, in the interest of painting a picture of 18th century culture, results in a book that seems long than necessary. The number of scholarly corrections based on comparing commonly held beliefs to the original documents is almost oppressive, however fascinating they may be.