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This review is from: American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Paperback)
Ms. Maier nails the sub-title of her book by offering content rich in the context of the times wherein Thomas Jefferson, the 2nd Congress' DofI drafting committee, and the Congress itself developed and published the Declaration of Independence. Maier also appropriately looks to the past to reveal documents that provided some of the core arguments leveraged by the 2nd American Congress such as the 1689 English Declaration of Rights along with declarations from the surrounding colonies, counties, and town's declarations that preceded or were published soon after the DofI.
Ms. Maier's analysis of the process that ultimately led to the DofI's publication demythologizes the notion that it sprung solely from Jefferson or the rhetoric of John Adams and a few others during sessions of the 1st & 2nd Congress but instead was well grounded in enlightenment ideals that had already influenced Western Civilization's march away from the idea that just governmental powers come from divine mandate and instead derive from a contractual arrangement between the people and its government. An example is Ms. Maier's succinct reportage on the English Declaration of Rights in 1689 and how that document served as both a precedent rationalizing our own rejection of British sovereignty and a novel approach to justifying the just reign of power over the people where Jefferson extended that argument further than the English. This analysis alone is worth reading the book since it provides a more fully fleshed-out context when considering specific passages in the DofI and whether the colonists were striking down sovereignty claims by the King or specific failures by him and his government required to justly govern in this new contractual context which even King George III conceded was legitimate.
Ms. Maier also does a fine job of explaining the evolution of the perception of the Declaration from its initial publication to Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries using it buttress their arguments regarding slavery, both for and against. This revelation notes that Lincoln and the Union didn't just win the freedom of the slaves and save the Union, but also defended the assertion that `all men are created equal' which was being challenged by some of Mr. Lincoln's opponents where the Union's victory entrenched this idea ever since and enabled the continued rise of equal rights though with some way to go. Ms. Maier makes the argument our modern-day prism is that of Mr. Lincoln's that she claims is also markedly different than the founders'. This is where the book breaks down given that I don't think her rebuttal to Lincoln's approach relative to the founders is sufficient in terms of the volume of perspectives she provides.
Another weakness of the book is that I think her readers would have been well served with an additional chapter that covers how constitutional scholars and the federal courts either ignore or leverage the DofI to inform their interpretation of at least the U.S. Constitution if not also the states' Constitutions. Two areas I think are especially imperative is constitutional legitimacy along with the correct approach to weigh the legitimacy of government deploying power in a way that limits or prohibits the exercise of individual rights. Does our own Constitution and its interpretations by the court meet the standard set forth by the 2nd Congress when they declared, "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . ."?
The second area that should have been covered is how the DofI informs our approach to determining federal court cases that revolve around claims that the exercise of government power is unconstitutionally encroaching on individual rights. The 9th Amendment explicitly notes that all our rights are not numerated in the Constitution while the DofI defines these rights as unalienable. Yet the courts avoid the 9th altogether and often demand individuals suing in court provide evidence of a right worthy of exercise or governmental protection rather than the courts instead demanding the government prove a delegated power that justly and constitutionally limits or prohibits the plaintiff's rights. One would think such passages would mandate that the courts exclusively put the obligation on government to prove delegated authority.
Despite the book's brevity and its serving as an elementary introduction to the DofI, I think it's a very worthy resource given the bulk of frequently ignored information provided and the high quality of the analysis of how people in Western Civilization evolved their understanding of the legitimacy of government as it occurred and was demonstrated. Lastly the book is excellently cited while also providing valuable appendixes that list the declarations from that time and even provide a handful as illuminating examples. Given how most historical renderings appropriately focus more attention on the Constitution; even long-time and ardent students of America's founding will find this a worthy edition to both study and value as a subsequent reference book.