What Was the Declaration of Independence?

July 4, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

DAVID GERGEN: Professor Maier, the central point in your book seems to be that the Declaration of Independence we celebrate today has become something very different in our minds from what it was originally. Let’s go back to 1776, and tell us what it was originally.

PAULINE MAIER, Author, “American Scripture”: The Declaration of Independence originally was an explanation for a decision that Congress had made two days earlier in favor of independence. On July 2nd, Congress actually adopted resolutions that proclaimed or made the united colonies free and independent states. Congress then went through two days editing this document. What it was, was in some measure a press release. I mean, it was an announcement to the American people of this terribly important decision that Congress had made. And when Congress sat down to lay down instructions for its distribution, they were confined largely to the American people and to the American army.

So that was its purpose. And the parts that we remember with such reverence got very little attention in the 18th century. The second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”–et cetera, I think these were very familiar ideas to 18th century Americans, ideas they encountered in any number of places.

DAVID GERGEN: It was stunning to me how many other Declarations of Independence had been adopted by states and local communities–


DAVID GERGEN: –before July 1776.

PAULINE MAIER: Absolutely. This was one of the really surprising discoveries that I came across in the course of doing this book, how many towns, counties, militia units had actually expressed publicly and on paper their adherence, their advocacy of independence and often explained why. They did this as part of a political process, to try to get their state legislatures to allow their delegates to the Congress to vote for independence. And that was really where the struggle was carried on, on these local levels, trying to get those instructions changed.

DAVID GERGEN: So there was a grassroots movement–

PAULINE MAIER: Absolutely. They needed it.

DAVID GERGEN: –that took place–and it helped to stir up.

PAULINE MAIER: Absolutely, because the radicals in Congress thought the people were in advance of their representatives. So what you had to do was do what my Congressman–one time Congressman Tip O’Neill said–all politics is local. You had to get down there on the local level and roll your sleeves up, and they were doing that.

DAVID GERGEN: And you’ve identified some 90 of these–

PAULINE MAIER: I found 90, and then I–they were pretty much alike. I assume there are more out there to be found. I’m hoping I will inspire people to get out there and look for some.

DAVID GERGEN: One of the points you make here is that we think it was very much–the Declaration was very much the product of one mind–Thomas Jefferson–


DAVID GERGEN: –noble mind that it was, and that, in fact, this was very much an expression, in your judgment, of the American mind.

PAULINE MAIER: We like to think of it as an emanation of Jefferson’s originality. I think it was, but it was an originality in 18th century terms, not in the 19th century’s idea, that we believe so much–they came to believe so much in individual creativity.

DAVID GERGEN: In the 19th century, and during the romantic period–

PAULINE MAIER: Right. It was a very romantic idea that we should be an original creation of one mind.

DAVID GERGEN: But that was not the idea at the time of the drafting.

PAULINE MAIER: It wasn’t the ideal at the time, and, in fact, very–I don’t mean to denigrate in any way Thomas Jefferson’s contribution. I think his drafting was inspired, however, the story we recall is the story he recalled largely when he was in very–the last decade of is life–no Americans thought to ask very many probing questions about the draft. In fact, they didn’t care very much until after the War of 1812, and, of course, the survivors told the story. And the survivor that had the edge on the story was, in fact, Thomas Jefferson. John Adams also survived, but people knew by that time that Jefferson had drafted it. And he said memory is fallible. Other people have things confused, but what I tell you is the truth. How do I–how can you believe me–because I have two documents of the time. One is notes of proceedings I took sitting in my seat while independence was debated, and the other is a document we remember as the original rough draft. As Jefferson remembered it later, it was a very simple story. The committee met. It appointed him draftsman. He showed it to Adams and to Benjamin Franklin, and then the Congress–the committee said terrific, Thomas terrific, we’ll just send it on to Congress with no further changes. And I think he was misled by the document. I don’t think–you know, this is not the character issue. So many people are concerned with the character–this is a human issue. This is an old man, who is depressed, who had lots of reasons–

DAVID GERGEN: You’re talking about Thomas Jefferson later on.

PAULINE MAIER: I’m talking about Thomas Jefferson. I mean, mythical Thomas Jefferson is eternally optimistic. But Thomas Jefferson the last decade of his life was filled with doubt. He worried about the future of the country. The slavery debate was coming. The University of Virginia was not going very well. He was deep in debt, worried that his family would lose Monticello, as, in fact, it did, and of course, that precluded his freeing his slaves, which were the one tangible asset–one of the tangible assets he had. This man had a lot of reason for doubt, and he asked, what have I done of value in my life? See, he didn’t know he might well become the most overrated figure in American history. He had no idea what was coming. So, you know, he asked this in the Declaration–it was something he held on to. Here was something hard, and he did in his accounts exaggerate, I think, how exclusively he was responsible for it. I don’t mean to say he did not do the primary drafting. He did. But there were things he forgot, like how much the other members of the committee fit in. See, on the rough draft–

DAVID GERGEN: And how much the Congress did.

PAULINE MAIER: –some changes are, indeed, in Adams’s and Franklin’s handwriting, but most of the changes are in Jefferson’s handwriting. I think he assumed he had made all of those, but I’ve discovered there’s a letter that actually is printed, I mean, not all new documents are found in attics or archives. I found some in the library that were published, quite a few of them. And this particular one, it was a note he sent to Benjamin Franklin with a draft of the Declaration. Benjamin Franklin had gout. He was sick. So he wasn’t attending the meeting. So they had to send it to him, and it said, “Dear Dr. Franklin, this committee has just looked at this document. They asked me to change a thing or two, and I’m hoping you can look at it and get back to me in the morning so I can show it to the committee again.” I mean, this committee was active. John Adams said they outlined the whole document before it was written, though that input he forgot.

DAVID GERGEN: Your point though then is that Jefferson is seen as the author–was really the draftsman–many other hands were involved.

PAULINE MAIER: Right, right.

DAVID GERGEN: As brilliant as Jefferson was, as noble as his sentiments were, that many deserved credit as well.

PAULINE MAIER: Absolutely. It’s the work of many hands, but probably the most important hands were those of his editors in the Congress. I mean, this is–I love the sentiment of a New Hampshire delegate named Josiah Bartlett who wrote and said, well, we’re going to work on the Declaration; we got a pretty good draft. I mean, hyperbole is not there. Pretty good draft; hey, that was good. It was workable. It was close.

DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you one last question. Our time’s running out and I have to ask you one last question. Then how–so the document’s passed; Jefferson helps to revive interest in it; but how does it become a sacred document in the American mind? Was it really Lincoln in the time that followed?

PAULINE MAIER: Lincoln, but Lincoln is building on the sentiments of I think three decades of American reverence, reviving reverence for the revolution. He held the revolution in high esteem. He was defending the Declaration against the defenders of slavery, who were saying, all men aren’t created equal. And in reinterpreting the document to answer the defenders of slavery, he gave us a document which is rather more like a Bill of Rights. The document Lincoln left us is the document which is, in fact, now on the Jefferson Memorial. The part that was important to Jefferson was the assertion to the right of revolution. This ends by saying governments are instituted among men to protect their rights. That was a document that was in Lincoln’s hands and in ours, you know, for the guidance of the society, the development of an established society, and that one that was in the midst of revolution. It served a function rather like a Bill of Rights. That wasn’t it was meant to be originally, but I think the American people and their leaders made it into that because they felt the need of such a document. It’s a testament to the creativity of the American people, what it’s becomes.

DAVID GERGEN: Thank you, Pauline Maier.