Cold Water and Living Documents

There is a breed of historians known, colloquially, as “cold water” historians for their drive to pour analytic “cold water” on the politically or historiographical fashionable arguments. Pauline Maier most certainly belongs to this historiographical polar bear club.[1] As anyone who read her New York Times obituary (or any other, really) knows, Maier is famous for describing Thomas Jefferson as “overrated.[2] Her wonderful American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence brings the most powerful weapons of the skeptical historians— context and contingency—to bear on that central document of American political and national identity.

Maier makes several downright revolutionary moves in her interpretation of the Declaration and the movement toward American independence, more broadly. The most important, and most challenging to the common assumptions of historians and laypersons alike, is that there is nothing truly original about the Declaration. Maier sees the document “as a statement of political philosophy, [it] was… purposefully unexceptional in 1776.”[3] This is a wonderful historiographical two-step around one of the more tortured interpretive battles about the Declaration—if it was “Lockean” natural rights or Scottish “common-sense” that most impacted Jefferson at his drafting table.[4] This analytic move allows Maier to shift to fresh analytic terrain by drawing careful attention to the political and institutional necessities of 1776. The Declaration of Independence in American Scripture becomes, perhaps, a less revolutionary document and more a document of the Revolution.[5]

The most important context, then, for the Declaration is the state and local “declarations of independence” and the moves within the Continental Congress towards authorizing the states to form their own independent constitutions—all of which precede the adoption of the Declaration by Congress. This has the wonderful benefit of broadening this story to include common men on the ground in specific communities and their dialectical relationship with developments on the proto-national political scene.[6] It suggests that movement towards independence was a much more a popular movement (at least within politicized whites) than much of Congress-Jefferson dominated scholarship suggests.[7] This aspect of American Scripture links with Maier’s broader purpose of de-centering the political philosophy of Declaration from our analysis and making the document quite clearly a product of the context of 1776.

Maier’s process-centered understanding of the Declaration of Independence has the added benefit of pushing Jefferson to the side. Direct antecedents to Jefferson’s draft, such as the English and the Virginia Declarations of Rights, get much more space than they usually do in such narratives.[8] Maier breaks from the standard practice of referring to the document produced in the summer of 1776 as “Jefferson’s Declaration.”[9] For Maier this is a deep misunderstanding of the Declaration. At every level Jefferson’s colleagues, in the drafting committee and the Congress more broadly, reshaped and sharpened the Virginian’s prose. The final document, then, is truly “Congress’s Declaration”—“[b]y exercising their intelligence, political good sense, and a discerning sense of language, the delegates managed to make the Declaration at once more accurate and more consonant with the convictions of their constitutes, and to enhance both its power and its eloquence.”[10] Such is the power of a good editor.

All of this taken together is a deep challenge to Americans’ common perception of the Declaration. This deflating the trans-historical importance of the Declaration has drawn sharp criticism. Fewer critiques are sharper than that of Gordon Wood, her colleague in the “Harvard circle.”[11] Wood argues, in his review of American Scripture, that Maier “was so committed to critical contextual history – in getting the story of 1776 right – that she has no sympathy whatsoever with the symbolic memory that has grown up around Jefferson in the last two centuries.” She “ought to have a little more compassion for a people who lack common origins as well as most of the most of the other ordinary attributes of nation building.” For documents like Declaration or the Constitution what’s really important is not their history or context, but the tradition which emerged around them. This tradition is what gave great men like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. the discursive tools to challenge the great American evils of slavery and segregation. For a “critical historian” like Maier to seek challenge this tradition through “correcting obvious myths” is to deny Americans the heritage and tradition necessary to create politics in the present.[12]

Such criticism misses the mark. Maier is rightly remembered as “historian’s historian,” focused first and foremost interested getting the past “right.” In American Scripture, which I consider her greatest work, such an interpretive position has a deep and important political purpose. By restoring the Declaration to its original historical context Maier hopes to liberate it from the ossifying shrine some Americans have erected around the document. That the Declaration, according to one its modern attendants, has “been untouched by human hands for forty-three years” symbolic of the tragic nature of this process.[13] The Declaration, for Maier, was made human hands – not a hand, be it Jefferson’s or even Congress’s. It is a living document. Independence, and thus the United States, was made by the American people and thus its legacy should be restored to the hands of the people. Enshrining the memory of the Declaration as a product of Jefferson’s hand or its reinterpretation by Lincoln or, even, King ignores the multifaceted and contingent contexts out of which the American nation emerged. Placing heritage over history is, in Maier’s words, at “war against our capacity, together, to define and realize right and justice in our time.”[14]

That capacity is the gift of historicism and critical history. By returning such vital parts of the American political tradition to their original historical contexts, critical history begins to liberate us from the dead hand of the past. Documents like the Declaration of the Independence and institutions like the government created by the Constitution are not shrines demanding genuflection by modern Americans. They are a large and important legacy, ours to do with what we need and will.


[1] My first introduction to the idea of “cold water” historians was in the introduction to Jack Diggins’ On Hallowed Ground. I was recently reminded of concept at a recent talk by David Armitage at the CUNY Graduate Center. On Diggins’ definition of himself as a “cold water” historian and the concept more broadly see: John Patrick Diggins, On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), x-xii.

[2] It is a testament to Jefferson’s invincible appeal and Maier’s status as a great iconoclast that this statement made the headline of her Times obit. Many acolytes of the Sage of Monticello tut-tut at the man’s skeptical and, sometimes, rough treatment at the hands of Maier. I believe that describing Jefferson as the most “overrated” President or great man in American history pays the Virginian a great compliment – considering the countless other figures with bloated and over-celebrated reputations (Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, et al.) there is some seriously stiff competition for that title.

[3] Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York, NY: Knopf, 1997), xvii.

[4] The poles of this debate are best represented by two classics:  Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922) (natural rights) and Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1978) (common sense). It is clear that when forced to choose Maier is on the Lockean end of this debate. Becker is cited throughout her notes and she is often sharply critical of Gary Wills’ interpretation.

[5] Maier, in some ways, represents the beginning of a turn towards an “instrumentalist” view of the Declaration of Independence. This interpretation foregrounds issues sovereignty, the needs of the war effort, and the emerging United States’ diplomatic position. For an example see: David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[6] It is tragic, as Michael Hattem, Ken Owen, and myself note in a recent edition of “The JuntoCast”, that few scholars have followed up on Maier’s attempt to broaden of the story of independence and make such an analysis part of the New New Political History. For example of an excellent study that comes closest to achieving this see: William Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1 – July 4, 1776 (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

[7] Perhaps “suggests” is not the right word. Much of that scholarship assumes the popular appeal of independence. For such an approach see: Joseph Ellis, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (New York, NY: Knopf, 2013).

[8] See: Maier, American Scripture, 52-54 (English) and 125-127 (Virginia). Maier is clearly in the camp which sees Jefferson as deserving to have given George Mason, at least, a footnote in his draft. The Sage of Monticello’s writing practices would not be acceptable from the pen of a modern undergraduate.

[9] The idea of crediting Jefferson for the final product and giving preference to Jefferson’s draft unites diverse interpretations of the Declaration. Both Wills and Becker are Jefferson focused, for example.

[10] Maier, American Scripture, 150.

[11] This is as good a place as any to provide my take on one of the central themes of the roundtable – Maier’s place within the “Harvard circle” (or school) and the republican synthesis. For me she is the strongest of the four big figures (Bailyn, Maier, Wood, and Rakove) of that era. This is because Maier’s historical vision grew over the course of her career while still maintaining a commitment to the interpretive power of republicanism. From her first book, From Resistance to Revolution, to her final work, Ratification, Maier’s historical vision grew and grew – incorporating new sources, new perspectives, and more diverse political voices within her analysis. Contrast this with the work, for example, of Gordon Wood whose historical vision has contracted over the course of his career – compare Creation of the American Republic to the narrow and schematic Radicalism of the American Revolution. While Wood remains the more famous figure, I believe that Maier’s work will stand the test of time and criticism. For the differences between figures within the “Harvard circle” see the (relatively) recent episode in Rakove’s “American Founders and their World” interview series from Stanford.

[12] Gordon Wood, “History and Heritage,” in The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2008), 180–194. Quotations on 192-194.

[13] Maier, American Scripture, xv.

[14] Ibid, 215.

3 comments on “Cold Water and Living Documents

  1. Cory Young says:

    As someone unfamiliar with this book, I was hoping you might be able to explain a few things to me. First, does Maier differentiate between Jefferson’s rough drafts and the final copy that made its way to Congress? To say that the first editions were not his own seems to me a difficult argument considering how much of his flair for literary exaggeration needed to be excised from the final Declaration. Second, could you elaborate a bit on the difference between Wood’s “tradition” and Maier’s “historical context.” Do not both paradigms seek to explain how the Declaration of Independence came to mean what it does today?

    Thank you for introducing me to this work of scholarship. As someone captivated by Jefferson historiography (especially with regards to the appropriation of his legacy), I must add it to my list.

  2. Roy Rogers says:

    Cory, thanks for the comment. I am traveling this week so I am replying on a mobile device. Apologies if this is choppy.

    She does differentiate between Jefferson’s draft(s) and the version passed & edited by Congress. What makes her interpretation novel is that she gives primary interpretative weight to the final Congressional version. This puts her at odds w/ folks like Gary Wills.

    As for the Maier-Wood divide – Wood argues what really matters is the tradition and mythology that grew up around the Declaration. This tradition deserves primary respect and seeking to return the document to its original context robs Americans of the ability to create politics today. Maier argues that restoring our understanding of the Declaration to its original contexts is a liberating move – it frees us to understand what the document really meant & make of it today what we will.

    Both are about how we got here but have radically different implications.

    Thanks again for the comment!!

  3. dearieme says:

    “she has no sympathy whatsoever with the symbolic memory that has grown up around Jefferson in the last two centuries.” She “ought to have a little more compassion for a people who lack common origins as well as most of the most of the other ordinary attributes of nation building.”

    Noble Lies in American Life: A History. There you are, a book title for anyone who wants it.

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