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Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence Paperback – November 14, 2002
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“No one has offered so drastic a revision or so close or convincing an analysis as Wills has. . . . The results are little short of astonishing.” —Edmund S. Morgan, The New York Review of Books
“The best and most thorough analysis of the Declaration ever written.” —David Brion Davis, The New York Times Book Review
“A scintalling tour de force of historical detective work.” —Time --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From the Publisher
"No one has offered so drastic a revision or so close or convincing an analysis as Wills has...The results are little short of astonishing."
-- Edmund S. Morgan The New York Review of Books
"The best and most thorough analysis of the Declaration ever written."
--David Brion Davis, The New York Times Book Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
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.
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.