Every year around July 4th, inspired by the occasion as much as the dream of getting some real reading done over the long holiday weekend, I pull from the shelf Garry Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
The book was published two years after the bicentennial, and is a long and dense study of the intellectual foundations of the Declaration of Independence — “the psychology of Louis de Jaucourt, the contract theory of David Hume, the mechanics of benevolence as elaborated by Francis Hutcheson,” as Wills summarizes them early on. Wills also talks about the way those lines of thought square up with how the document exists in our collective consciousness today, though I suspect he would have some updates to that interpretation.
As you might imagine, Inventing America has the potential to make its readers absolutely insufferable at today’s barbecues and fireworks shows, and fortunately I rarely get in too deep. The Prologue is enough to add a little magic and solemnity to a day all too often characterized by over-eating and ‘Murica chest thumping, and that is my recommended reading here.
The question Wills raises from the outset is: why this date? Why is July 4th the day we mark as the beginning, when it might more appropriately be the ratification of the Constitution or even the formal acceptance of the Articles of Confederation? The answer is two-fold. First, because the Declaration is the more universal and unimpeachable symbol of what America is (and wants to be) than the endlessly parsed language of the Constitution. And second, because Abraham Lincoln saw it that way. He called the Declaration “a standard maxim for free society, which would be familiar to all, and revered by all” as Wills quotes him saying, and was not shy about naming the 4th as our true day of origin. Or, as he put it in 1863, “Four score and seven years ago…”
All is not grace and glory, however, and Wills is candid about the ways that a messianic mission statement has served to justify some of our darker moments. It’s a challenging reflection on the honorable, bloody, complicated and well-meaning history of the nation celebrating its birthday today.
America, this is quite serious, and Inventing America is well worth a read.
Read more in our election year series “America This is Quite Serious.”