As July 4 approached, I found myself re-reading Pauline Maier’s 1997 book “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” including the introduction in which Maier sets out her purpose: “to trace the document’s development,” especially because recent evidence demands a new perspective about the piece of parchment that declared Americans free people.
The first governments
Maier starts her story of the making of the Declaration with the May 10, 1775, Second Continental Congress, which she calls the first government of the United States. Its predecessor, The First Continental Congress in September and October 1774, confounded the King’s ministers “who considered the colonists incapable of acting together.” This First Congress believed that if Britain responded to the colonists’ grievances, a peaceful settlement was still possible. But Britain did not respond to these overtures, and Massachusetts led the way to outright rebellion at Lexington and Concord. The Massachusetts delegates — John Hancock, Samuel and John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and Thomas Cushing — made their way to Philadelphia, drawing support from militia companies and colonists along the way.
Whereas the First Continental Congress sued for a peaceful means to end the strife between Britain and the colonies, the Second Continental Congress knew it “would have to take charge of a country at war.” Reconciliation no longer seemed possible or even desirable. Following English tradition of the need for a document that would argue for independence, Maier posits that the “how” of the writing involves assembling puzzle pieces or solving a mystery. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote about the process, but these contradictory accounts occurred years later. Still, of the five members of the committee charged with writing the Declaration, Adams and Jefferson played central roles.
Adams wrote in his autobiography that Jefferson’s being a Virginian gave him an advantage as a political moderate as contrasted with Adams’ fiery determination to achieve independence: “... I had been so obnoxious in my early and constant Zeal in proposing [independence] that any draught (composition) of mine would undergo a more severe Scrutiny and Criticism in Congress, than one of his compositions.”
Care and storage of the nation’s documents
Five documents located in the National Archives — the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Declaration of Rights George Mason wrote — reside every night in a “vault of reinforced concrete and steel 22 feet deep, weighing 55 tons.” During the day, the Declaration and Constitution are displayed in a “massive, bronze-framed, bulletproof glass container filled with inert helium gas and water vapor, which keeps the parchment supple.” Once a year, conservators at the National Archives scrutinize the documents for wear, locating any tears, bends, or other marks of deterioration.
Maier points out that the Declaration in the past never had such care: It was “one of the most abused documents in the history of preservation.” Rolled up, it was moved to various locations throughout the Revolutionary War until it found a place with the national government at New York, Philadelphia, and finally in Washington, D.C., in 1800. When the British invaded in 1814, a government worker hid it in Leesburg, Va. Even then the ink was fading, but the State Department in 1841, tired of pulling out the Declaration at the request of visitors, mounted it on a wall where it stayed for 35 years.
When the Declaration was 100 years old, it had reached a worrisome state of decay. Scientists recommended keeping it out of the light and as dry as possible (though too much drying causes parchment to crack). The State Department turned the document over to the Library of Congress in 1921 where Library officials wanted to display it in “a sort of shrine.” Francis H. Bacon, whose brother Henry was architect for the Lincoln Memorial, created a marble stand which enabled the Declaration to be tilted for ease of reading; it was encased in a frame with gold-plated bronze doors. It deliberately resembled an “altar-piece,” suggesting the visitors were pilgrims seeking a close look at the document as they passed by a chancel rail.
Maier writes that after Dec. 7 and Pearl Harbor, the Declaration and the Constitution were carefully packed and sent by Pullman car to the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox. Secret Service agents, a Library of Congress officer, and troops of the 13th Armored Division accompanied the documents.
Extremes in the D.C. climate before the days of air-conditioning took their toll as cracks and tears and curled edges affected the documents. Maier points out the irony in modern methods of repair that involve “luting,” cementing the cracks with fibers from Japanese tissue wetted with rice paste. Finally, by September 1952, the documents found a permanent home in the National Archives in D.C.
The language of freedom
Jefferson, while not a plagiarist, relied on the language of previous documents to compose the Declaration, according to Maier’s close examination of the text. Jefferson has just finished writing the preamble for the Virginia constitution, itself based upon the English Declaration of Rights. He also relied upon George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights which Mason wrote for the convention sitting in Williamsburg. Maier justifies Jefferson’s reliance on pre-existing texts: “In the 18th century, educated people regarded with disdain the striving for novelty. Achievement lay instead in the creative adaptation of pre-existing models, and the highest praise of all went to imitations whose excellence exceeded that of the examples that inspired them.”
Maier quotes Jefferson’s biographer Dumas Malone who said Jefferson had “a rare gift of adaptation,” citing Jefferson’s use of models from Andrea Palladio, the Italian architect, to design his Monticello home and Jefferson’s determination to achieve an English landscape in a Virginia climate unsuited to such an endeavor.
Jefferson so brilliantly altered the wording of these other sources, however, that Maier concedes the Declaration remains largely his work.
As we celebrated Independence Day, the actual making of the Declaration and the words Jefferson composed were perhaps overshadowed by fireworks, food, family, and fun. We were enjoying “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Maier’s book tells the story behind the words.