Review: American Scripture by Pauline Maier

Written for Simmons LIS443: Archives, History, & Collective Memory. © Oct. 2012

In the introduction to her book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, Pauline Maier declares her own research to have produced “a book on the Declaration of Independence ‘regarded as an event, as the culmination of a series of revolutionary activities’” (xviii). And yet she states that she also “went onto tell another story” as well, “about how, after a period in which the Declaration of Independence was all but forgotten, it was remade into a sacred text, a statement of basic enduring truths often described with words borrowed from the vocabulary of religion” (Maier xvii). Although these two theses are similar – and fit well within the prose Maier has ultimately penned – they are different. Both tackle the idea of collective memory – the premise that a self-identified group of people can both share and shape the group’s ‘official’ remembrance of an event or experience – but, by separating the writing of the Declaration with its remaking, Maier puts forth two very different arguments.

To start, describing the writing of the Declaration of Independence ‘as an event, as the culmination of a series of…activities’ places its creation as a collective decision and positions the document as nothing less than the final product of group consensus. Because of this, the “‘historical’ memory” both of the Declaration itself and the writing of the Declaration can only “refer to residues of events by virtue of which groups claim a continuous identity through time” (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 19). In a sense, then, the Second Continental Congress, by the act of producing the Declaration of Independence, created a social – and thus historical – memory that was then transferred to the document itself.

For example, before the 1770s, the thirteen colonies of the New World had thirteen different governing bodies; their ‘unity’ arrived not from similar political ideologies, but from a similar geographic location. The colonists thought of themselves as, and acted like they were, British. With growing unrest due to King George III’s lackluster political rule and the ‘taxation without representation’ (culminating most famously in the Boston Tea Party of 1773), however, the colonists were slowly veering toward a unified political stance against British rule. Simply by allocating representatives for the First and Second Continental Congresses – who were charged with finding a solution to the myriad governmental and economic problems presently occurring – the colonists were thus supporting the idea of a unified governing body made up of delegates from only the thirteen colonies.

As Maier writes, “The colonists’ consistent expression of respect and deference toward the Continental Congress demonstrated that they were in fact a people, with a sense of common identity and even established political bonds” (133). Thus, by indirectly participating in the Congresses, the colonists were also participating in the formation of a ‘common identity’ separate and in opposition to their British identity. “As affection for the Mother Country faded,” Maier states, that same affection “was transferred to that jerry-built institution, the Second Continental Congress, and the fledgling nation it struggled to lead” (76). Perhaps Maier could have also substituted ‘belief’ for ‘affection’, as the colonists’ belief and acceptance – even their recognition – of British rule not only faded as their political unease grew; it also was transferred to the as-yet-unnamed American reign.

Likewise, Maier takes great pains to explain that, by supporting American representation, colonists also supported that idea “that all Americans” also “felt aggrieved by the oppression of any among them,” which then “testified to a sense of fellowship that confirmed their identity as a people” – together and separate from British people, who did not seem to have the same political or economic woes (Maier 115). Also, “as a statement of political philosophy,” Maier writes, “the Declaration was therefore purposely unexceptional in 1776” (xvii). It was simply just one other attempt to make George III listen to the problems his colonists in America were having. Paul Connerton expresses this idea as follows: “A village informally constructs a continuous communal history of itself: a history in which everybody portrays, in which everybody is portrayed, and in which the act of portraying never stops” (17). This ‘village’ was America, and its inhabitants were ‘informally’ beginning to construct their ‘communal history’ by writing down the ways in which they believed George III had failed them as king. The ‘everybody’ to which Connerton refers can be interpreted through Maier’s statement that, in supporting the Continental Congresses, Americans were banding together and transitioning from individualistic identities to a group ‘fellowship’.

Finally, Maier argues that it was the idea of independence – not the declaration for independence – to which most Americans subscribed. In the introduction to American Scripture, Maier plainly states that “‘the Nation’s Vital Documents’” – a current term which has been applied to the Declaration, and the Constitution and its amendments – “have not always been regarded with such reverence, or, for that matter, given much regard of any kind. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was not even copied onto a particularly good sheet of parchment, just an ordinary type of Colonial manufacture that could be easily found on sale in Philadelphia” (xi). She thereby infers that the Congress who edited and finally penned the Declaration did not yet refer to it as the Declaration of Independence as we do today. Yes, it was the only combined declaration for independence, approved by and comprised from the Continental Congress. But, still, it was first and foremost “a public document [as well as] an authenticated expression of the [collective] American mind” (Maier 149).

Up to the month of July in 1776, the thirteen colonies had already written more than 90 declarations of independence on a state-by-state basis (Maier 48). Why should the Continental Congress have viewed this declaration as The Declaration? As late as June of that same year, “some delegates argued…that Congress should adopt Independence only when ‘the voice of the people drove [them] into it’ because the people ‘where [their] power & without them [the] declarations could not be carried into effect’” (Maier 58). With this in mind, Maier’s argument makes even more sense. The colonists could not put their faith in the document itself – for if they lost the battles already being fought, that same document could convict them for treason against the crown. The colonists, therefore, “needed to overcome fear and the sense of loss, to link their cause with a purpose beyond survival, …to…the vision of a better future so compelling that in its name men would sacrifice even life itself” (Maier 95-96; italics added). A mere parchment could not do that – but an idea could.

For Maier’s second argument, she focuses explicitly on the remaking of the Declaration of Independence as an American ‘sacred text’, one in which the document itself became scripture over and above the ideas its parchment contained. Although this remaking occurred most heavily in the 1820s, Maier does state that, as early as 1777, “one somewhat curmudgeonly Connecticut congressman…[was] describ[ing July 4th festivities] as ‘celebrating the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,’” and that, while these festivities specifically “reference[d]…the ‘Anniversary of Independence,’” they were also celebrating the Declaration itself (161). This trend continued and helped produce the “modern reputation” we know today “in the latter partisan politics of the 1790s,” reaching a “recognizably mature form, complete with quasi-religious attributes, thirty years later” during the 1820s (Maier 170).

Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, in the introduction to their compilation The Collective Memory Reader, write, “All individual remembering takes place with social materials, within social contexts, and in response to social cues” (19). As the political parties of the 1820s started to ‘remake’ the Declaration has a ‘sacred text’, American individuals followed suit, transitioning their individual memories through a more collective and social context. Maier notes that, while “the Declaration was at first forgotten almost entirely,” it was eventually “recalled and celebrated by Jeffersonian Republications, and later elevated into something akin to holy writ” (154). Again, as the politicians and social leaders began ‘elevating’ the physicality of the Declaration of Independence, their constituents – the everyman and everywoman of America – began believing and accepting this elevation as well.

AntheaJosias, in her article “Toward an Understanding of Archives as a Feature of Collective Memory,”describes this relationship as being a “mnemonic communit[y],” wherein the larger political bodies (or any type of “unit or collective”) exist in “help[ing] to define and shape individual memories, and upon which individual memories have influence” (99). Likewise, these communities become directly “responsible for [the] ‘mnemonic socialization’ that influences the…past” (Josias 99). For instance, in 1924, the Library of Congress installed the “first ‘shrine’” dedicated to the Declaration. The shrine itself “was made of marble, [and]…the Declaration was shown…with gold-plated bronze doors made to resemble ‘a conventional altar piece.’ …Around the assemblage was a marble balustrade ‘suggesting the chancel rail before an altar’” (Maier xii). If the Library of Congress – functioning here as another mnemonic community – not only views the parchment of the Declaration as akin to a sacred shrine, but also composes its viewing as a literal shrine, then what chance do patrons of the display have in not also viewing the Declaration this way?

Although Maier also focuses her argument on Abraham Lincoln and his reimagining during the Civil War – explaining that, “in [his] hands, the Declaration of Independence became first and foremost a living document for an established society, a set of goals to be realized over time” (207) – the document still failed to escape the precedent set in motion thirty years prior. Maurice Halbwachs, author of On Collective Memory,explains: “even at the moment of reproducing the past, our imagination remains under the influence of the present social milieu” (49). Therefore, during Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, even though he was ‘reproducing’ the meaning of the Declaration into something to which “many people, dead and alive, who struggle with the same or closely related problems” could relate and understand, he still could not completely override the mnemonic communities which had failed to remove the ideas of the Declaration from its specific format (Maier xx).

Maier exemplifies this by stating, “The original, signed texts of the Declaration of Independence…have become for the United States what Lenin’s body was for the Soviet Union, a tangible reminder of the revolution to which its children can still cling” (Maier xiii). Perhaps it is merely a historical fascination with anything relating to our ‘birth’ as a substantial and freestanding political institution that produces such a reverential reaction – and, yet, the United States Constitution is respected but not revered to the same extent as the Declaration of Independence. Why is that? Again, this fact does owe itself to the Declaration existing as a ‘tangible’ object, which serves to ‘remind’ citizens of the revolution against its tyrannical ruler. However, more emphasis should be placed on Maier’s first argument – that the Declaration in essence has “bec[o]me a powerful statement of national identity” and that its “ultimate authority…rests, as it always has, less in law than in the hearts and minds of the people, and its meaning changes as new groups and new causes claim its mantle, constantly reopening the issue of what the nation’s ‘founding principles’ demand” (Maier 154, 214).

Although the Declaration does present itself as a literal shrine, could the Library of Congress not also be creating a metaphorical shrine toward the ideas the Declaration represents – those that Lincoln emphasized in his Gettysburg Address? Maier explains:

The politics that attended its creation never entirely left its side, such that the Declaration of Independence…has also been at the center of some of the most intense conflicts in American history…. In the course of those controversies, the document…became not a justification of revolution, but a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the nation could be judged (Maier 154).

It is not a false statement to regard Maier’s initial theses – that her book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, “‘regarded [the Declaration of Independence] as an event, as the culmination of a series of revolutionary activities’” as well as “a sacred text, a statement of basic enduring truths often described with words borrowed from the vocabulary of religion (xviii, xvii) – as two contradicting and complementary truths.

The Library of Congress’ ‘shrine’ attests to this latter statement, as does Maier’s question about the ‘rightness’ of such a shrine in the first place. She asks, “Why should the American people file by, looking up reverentially at a document that was and is their creation, as if it were handed down by God or were the work of superhuman men whose talents far exceeded those of any who followed them?” (Maier 215). Her use of ‘was and is’ is correct: the Declaration was the work of American colonists – the same way that its remaking is the work of American citizens; the political terminology is the only thing separating the two groups. And yet, her follow-up, that “the symbolism” perpetrated by the Library of Congress “is all wrong,” is not totally correct. Although the Declaration’s current home does “suggest a tradition locked in a glorious but dead past,” it does not then “reinforce the passive instincts of an anti-political age, [nor] undercut the acknowledgement and exercise of public responsibilities essential to the survival of the republic and its ideals” (Maier 215).

For some Americans, the Declaration of Independence’s dual identity merely reinforces its dual purpose – that it is a national treasure fit to be worshipped and also representing of a malleable idea. Maier comments that, for Maine politician Peleg “Sprague, too, the Declaration of Independence was a ‘Declaration, by a whole people, of what before existed, and will always exist, the native equality of the human race, as the true foundation of all political, of all human institutions’” (Maier 191). If, as Connerton suggests, “no collective memory can exist without reference to a socially specific spatial framework” (37), then can’t the Declaration’s collective memory – its collective writing, editing, and acceptance – be given the chance to change alongside American’s changing socio-cultural and political ‘spatial frameworks’?

Sources

Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. PDF.

Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.PDF.

Josias, Anthea. “Toward an Understanding of Archives as a Feature of Collective Memory.” Archival Science 11.1-2 (2011): 95-112. PDF.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997. Print.

Olick, Jeffrey K., Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy. “Introduction.” The Collective Memory Reader. Ed. Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 3-62. PDF.