The 100 Other Declarations of Independence

MaierBy this point you are probably getting sick of July 4th posts.  But I have at least more for you before we put them aside for another year.

In 1997, the late Pauline Maier taught us that the Declaration of Independence signed in 1776 was one of many such “Declarations of Independence.”  Her book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence explored the nearly 100 state and local “declarations” that were written during 1776.

Rutgers University history professor David Greenberg recalls Maier’s work in his piece “America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence.”

Here is a taste:

Colonists expressed this newfound conviction in the “declarations of independence” that Maier discovered. A handful of these were self-consciously drafted in the same spirit as the Declaration we know today—proclamations issued by Virginia or New Jersey that formally disavowed British rule as a prologue to establishing their own constitutions. Others were simply enunciations of the sentiments of bodies that lacked formal political power but wished to take part in a conversation occurring across the colonies. Several came in the form of instructions issued by colonial legislatures to their congressional delegates, who had assembled in Philadelphia and were by the spring of 1776 taking up the question of independence. The state and local proclamations were meant to contribute to—to be in conversation with—the grand debates and discussions taking place in Philadelphia.

The everyday colonists’ declarations of independence from Britain give evidence that they considered the work of their appointed delegates to be of consummate importance. Assertive as they were in challenging the king, they deferred to what one town called “the well-known wisdom, prudence, justice, and integrity of that honourable body the Continental Congress.” Their conception of democracy was predicated on a regard for and trust in their chosen leaders. And the leaders, in turn, had regard for the will of the people. As one delegate to the Continental Congress put it, Congress wouldn’t call for a formal split until “the voice of the people drove us into it,” since “without them, our declarations could not be carried into effect.”

The documents that the people drafted exhibited a striking consistency in their reasoning and language. In place of Paine’s sweeping calls for a new age of mankind, colonists offered detailed, particular, pragmatic reasons for severing their bonds with Britain. The “declaration” was a familiar form, a genre, with roots in British politics, and colonists emulated past declarations, especially the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, which had justified the deposition of King James II. Following this form, colonists enumerated the specific wrongs committed by King George, citing mainly the offenses of the last two years—especially the Prohibitory Act of 1775, which blockaded American ports—and not the longer train of incidents dating to the 1760s. Also common to most of these documents was the claim that the call for separation was a last resort—a step taken only because the king had rejected their previous entreaties and no alternatives remained.

Read the entire piece here.

We Lost Some Good American Historians in 2013


We have covered most of their deaths here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Pencak and Kammen and Maier and Remini and Lerner and Morgan and Hackney.  

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has consecutive posts on three of these late historians.

On Pencak

I met Bill this spring at the “Revolution Reborn” conference in Philadelphia. He sat in the balcony and boomed down comments, but he was also happy to engage with non-academic “buffs” like myself. He had retired from Penn State and seemed to delight in shocking academic colleagues with the news that he’d taken a position at the University of South Alabama.

Bill was also part of a panel on the Treaty of 1763 at Faneuil Hall a few days later, and afterward we walked over to the Old State House together. Or rather, we tried. It was raining hard, the path was uphill, and Bill finally begged off, saying he was exhausted. He really didn’t look well, and I worried about whether he could get back to where he was staying. (Not that Bill let me walk him further than the T stop.)

So I can’t say I was shocked to learn of Bill’s death during heart surgery at age sixty-two. But I was definitely sad. He was still working on at least two big projects, a Jewish Studies program at his new university and a biography of Philadelphia’s first Episcopal bishop, and clearly still enjoying his work.

On Kammen:

The Kammen book most meaningful to me, because of my interests, was A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (1978), which isn’t always included among his major works. Among other topics that book considered the historical fiction set during the Revolution, and why the most popular books set in that period are about boys coming of age:

Almost to the point of numbing monotony,…imaginative writers have consistently perceived the American Revolution as a national rite de passage, and have relentlessly


projected that vision to an ever-widening readership. . . .

In some instances…a divided family exemplifies the divided empire; but much more common is the intergenerational conflict between father and son within the colonies, or a young man and his prospective father-in-law.

Of course, American Patriots coined the metaphor of parent and child when discussing relations with Britain, among other ways of viewing the crisis. But later generations seized on it.

Kammen traced a pattern of American novels through school staples like Johnny Tremain (1943) and and My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) and lesser examples like Thomas Forty (1947), April Morning (1961), and even Kenneth Roberts’s Loyalist novel Oliver Wiswell (1940). Further examples published since Kammen’s book include the two volumes of The Life and Astonishing Adventures of Octavian Nothing and the eventual three volumes of the Forge trilogy.

On Maier:


Early this month The Junto devoted a week of their blog to reviewing the legacy of historian Pauline Maier, who died this summer. Their essays discuss both Pauline’s four major books (she also wrote valuable articles, reviews, and teaching texts) and where she fit into the late-1900s “ideology” school of historians of the Revolution.

Remembering Pauline Maier

The good folks at The Junto have spent the week remembering the work and legacy of Pauline Maier, the MIT early American historian who died this past summer. It is a fine tribute.  It also strikes me that Maier’s work has been influential and relevant to several generations of historians.

Here is a taste of Michael Hattem’s introduction to the Pauline Maier roundtable:

Pauline Maier spent her entire career working on the American Revolution, literally starting her career with the imperial crisis and ending it with the ratification of the Constitution. At each step along the way, she made significant and genuine contributions to our understanding of the Revolution. Whether it was drawing out the transatlantic aspects of the resistance to imperial reform, providing the most readable explication of the radical Whig ideological interpretation, or telling new stories about the ways in which colonists declared independence or citizens debated the Constitution, Maier found an often elusive sweet spot between intellectual history and social history. She took ideas seriously and showed how those ideas played out “on the ground,” beyond just the elites. From that mix, she developed a brand of political history in which popular participation was not just incorporated into the narrative; it was central. Indeed, that popular participation defines the Revolution in the canon that is Maier’s work. And so while Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood may have had higher academic profiles, it was Maier who best fulfilled the potential of the “Harvard interpretation,” thereby making her work more relevant to new generations of historians than that of either Bailyn or Wood. And, to me, that continuing relevance is the core of the legacy of Pauline Maier.

What Should We Make of the Gettysburg Address?

Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln came to south central Pennsylvania, about thirty miles from where I am sitting as I write this post, to dedicate a national cemetery in Gettysburg.  There were about 15,000 people in attendance to hear Lincoln speak.  As many of you know, he was forced to follow Edward Everett, one of his generation’s great orators. Everett delivered a two hour speech.  Lincoln followed with 272 words.  Four score and seven years ago…

I have taken students to the site of this address several times over the years.  This summer I got to wander the cemetery for a few minutes with my twelve-year old daughter.  She did not like the fact that I was pulling her away from her friends during a break in a basketball tournament she was playing at Gettysburg College, but sometimes when your Dad is a history professor you need to learn how to deal with these kinds of spontaneous field trips.  I hope she will remember it.

As I walked through the cemetery this past summer, trying to explain to my daughter the significance of all that happened at Gettysburg, I tried to reflect on the words of the Gettysburg Address.  Those famous words began to ring in my ears: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Amen.

And then I thought about how Lincoln understood what happened on the battlefield just a few months before he delivered this speech.  The people who fought at Gettysburg had died so the nation might live. He used religious terms such as “consecration” and “devotion.”  The soldiers at Gettysburg did not die in vain.  Instead, they spilled their blood and sacrificed their lives for a new nation, a free nation.

As Garry Wills argued over twenty years ago, Lincoln’s words “remade America” by redefining the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  After November 19, 1863, one would be hard pressed to think about the Declaration as merely a foreign policy document designed to announce America’s independence to the world.  (This is how the founders perceived it).  Lincoln helped to make the Declaration into what the late Pauline Maier has called “American Scripture,” a sacred text that will forever more be seen as a definitive statement of American nationalism despite the fact that this was by no means the document’s original intent.  With U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman doing the dirty work in the months following the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s “nation, under God” was achieved. The Union would survive amid the difficult trial of war.

Yesterday, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I helped Megan Piette bring together Messiah College history students and faculty to read the Address in front of a camera. (Stay tuned:  We hope to have this mash-up video online soon).  As I quietly sat in the back of the room listening to my colleagues and students recite the Address, I could not help think about how such a speech might be received at a place like Messiah College, a school partly rooted in the Anabaptist tradition.  Because of these roots Messiah does not fly an American flag on campus (although you will find one in the gym and on the athletic fields–NCAA regulations), privileges pacifism and non-violence, and is very wary of American patriotism and nationalism. As I listened to everyone repeat Lincoln’s words before the camera I wondered if any of them were thinking about how ironic it was to be reciting this speech at this school.   I thought about the several students and colleagues who did not respond to my invitation to participate in this project.  Perhaps they were just too busy and did not have the time.  But I wonder if some of them did not want to participate on more theological grounds.  I could definitely understand why someone from a Mennonite or Brethren tradition might feel uncomfortable affirming publicly a statement from a United States president who waged war to save the Union and then gave a speech “consecrating” such an act.

There is, of course, another way of looking at the Gettysburg Address. When Lincoln talked about “a new birth of freedom” he was probably referencing the renewed sense of equality that would eventually come to African Americans with a Union victory. (Remember, the Gettysburg Address was delivered over eleven months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued).  Perhaps he was envisioning the legislation that would eventually become 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  By November 1863, Lincoln and his abolitionist friends had made this a war about both preserving the Union and ending slavery.  Should the fact that the Gettysburg Address remade the Declaration of Independence (and the Constitution for that matter) by offering a more inclusive nationalist vision make us, or my Anabaptist friends, feel any better about all the war, bloodshed, and patriotism?  I don’t know, but it certainly makes me feel slightly better about it, even if I am not entirely sure the Civil War was a just war.

3 conclusions:

1). I love my country and think, along with Ken Burns, that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address needs to be commemorated, remembered, and perhaps even memorized.

2). I can’t help but wonder whether the death of over 50,000 people on the field at Gettysburg was really worth preserving the Union.

3).  If Lincoln’s understanding of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg (as articulated in this address) was about bringing the ideals of the Declaration of the Independence to former slaves then I am on board.

In the end, I think it is important to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address today because it raises a lot of questions–questions worth discussing over and over again–about our relationship to American nationalism and how that nationalism was forged in the crucible of war.

Pauline Maier Obituary

From The New York Times. Interesting title: “Pauline Maier, Historian Who Described Jefferson as ‘Overrated,’ Dies at 75.”

Here is a taste:

Professor Maier aimed her books at general as well as scholarly audiences by building suspense in telling stories whose outcome readers already knew. Her model was the popular historian Barbara Tuchman, who made a point of never mentioning an outcome until its proper moment in the story. 

In a memorial posted on H-Net, an interdisciplinary scholarly forum, R. B. Bernstein, a constitutional historian, called Professor Maier “one of the premier explainers of our profession, elucidating complex ideas and tangled historical events and process in clear, graceful language.”
“She also,” he added, “brought out the sheer fun of doing history.” 
Read the entire obituary here.

Pauline Maier: R.I.P.

I think all early American historians will be saddened to learn that Pauline Maier, longtime professor at MIT, passed away today at the age of 75.  Several outlets are reporting that the cause of death was lung cancer.  History News Network has posted an obituary.

I never met Maier, but had a great respect for her work, especially Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams and American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  I assigned American Scripture as summer reading when I taught AP U.S. History at the Stony Brook School back in the 1990s.  The book still shapes much of my understanding of the Declaration. 

Here is what some people are saying on Twitter about Maier’s death:

Dan Cohen: “Very said to hear.  A great historian and a beautiful writer.”:

Martin Van Buren: “Very saddened to hear that Pauline Maier has died.  She was a gifted and charismatic historian.  Check out her speeches on iTunes.

Sam Ryan:  RIP Pauline Maier, another early American historian whose work inspired & improved my undergrad education.

Joseph Adelman calls attention to the recent William & Mary Quarterly roundtable on her final book Ratification.

Taylor Stoermer: “Pauline Maier, who was one of the most inspirational women in my life and a billiant historian, passed away this morning.”

Stoermer: “Pauline Maier taught importance of brushing away ideological trends and misconceptions to do fearless, forthright history.

Douglas Bradburn: “Sad to hear of Pauline Maier’s passing today, a former winner of the George Washington Book Prize, a great historian, friend of Mount Vernon.