By JOHN MARTIN
On July 3 Pauline Maier, a leading historian of the American Revolution, spoke at the Library on a topic appropriate for the nation's 221st birthday.
Her "Books and Beyond" lecture was in conjunction with the release of her new book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf). The book, a history and exegesis of America's first national utterance, at once deconstructs and demystifies the authorship of that famous document, which Ms. Maier says was created by practical men with distinct and limited political objectives.
Pauline Maier has taught at Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Wisconsin, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is currently a professor of American history. Her previous books include From Resistance to Revolution (1972) and The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980).
Center for the Book Director John Y. Cole introduced Ms. Maier by reminding the audience that the official signed copy of the Declaration, issued by the members of the Second Continental Congress in 1776, resided at the Library until 1952, when it was moved to the National Archives upon passage of the Federal Records Act (see related story). The Library retains, however, Jefferson's original rough draft, which was on display as part of its permanent exhibition, "American Treasures of the Library of Congress." (The document, which was on view for three months, has been replaced with George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, considered to be a basis for Jefferson's work.)
Ms. Maier used the opportunity to critique this draft version, the reflection of a work-in-progress that she finds to be "the most interesting and the most human" of documents. "The original rough draft gives us a wonderful record of the whole evolution of the document." It also offers proof that many minds were involved in the creation of the ultimate draft of the Declaration signed by Congress.
The drafting committee, consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston, chose Jefferson to compose the first draft. Working in a pinch, said Ms. Maier, Jefferson probably drew on sources familiar to him. The first two paragraphs, for example, appear to be influenced by his own previously written preamble to the Virginia Constitution, which was rejected, and the Virginia Declaration of the Rights of Man, written by George Mason and published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on June 12, 1776.
Only a fragment of Jefferson's first compositional draft has survived, although a longhand copy, made by John Adams, provides some additional clues to its contents. After that, Jefferson incorporated the committee's revisions into a second draft. The committee edited that draft and presented a "fair copy" of this document to Congress, which made more revisions of its own. After printing the document eventually approved by Congress, the printer, Dunlap, probably threw that draft away.
But Jefferson saved the second draft, showing some revisions of Franklin and Adams in their own handwriting, and the changes Congress made later. This is the document the Library holds. In addition, Thomas Jefferson made six annotated longhand copies of the official congressional draft explaining the ways in which his draft had been "mutilated." Four of these six survive, at the Library of Congress, the American Philosophical Society, New York Public Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Ms. Maier also interpreted the most hallowed passages of the Declaration, including its assertion that "All men are created equal." The phrase has troubled later generations, especially since the mandate seemed to exclude women, who did not win the right to vote until 1920, and blacks, who were not freed from slavery until the Civil War.
The concepts of liberty and equality presented in the Declaration, said Ms. Maier, can only be understood in the terms of the time and with reference to the particular grievances spelled out in the document, a conservatively crafted statement of "the right of revolution." "Liberty and equality," she suggested, meant only that men like the drafters -- educated, propertied, free and white -- could not be forced to surrender their lives or property without their consent.
Slavery, Ms. Maier acknowledged, was an "anomaly" of which the drafters were aware, but which they chose not to address: a decision with fateful consequences for the nation. It was Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, she said, who reinterpreted the Declaration of Independence and made it applicable to all.
"Lincoln made blacks, immigrants and late-arrivers 'bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh' with the Founders," she said.
Interpreting the Declaration of Independence, said Ms. Maier, has become a quasi-religious exercise. Some, including the late Julian Boyd, have viewed the document as akin to Holy Scripture, said Ms. Maier. Without denying the achievement of the drafters, Ms. Maier attempts to bring the story of the Declaration down to earth. "The humanity lies in knowing the story," she said, noting that the official signed copy of the Declaration was not published until 1777, after the American victories at Trenton and Princeton gave the rebellion some chance of success.
"The drafters," she concluded, "were not giants who will never come again. These were ordinary men doing their best. To say we cannot come up to their standard is wrong. We can and we must."
Mr. Martin is a copyright examiner in the Copyright Office.