Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration Of Independence

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by Garry Wills

Doubleday & Co., $10.00

What the Declaration of Independence has to say, critic Carry Wills argues in his new book, was not thought at first to be of monumental importance. It was the act of declaring ourselves independent that mattered: this was a necessary step in securing foreign—particularly French—aid for our Revolutionary War effort, as foreign governments could scarcely be expected to wade into a family squabble between England and one of her colonies. But not until after the War of 1812 did Americans come to regard seriously the content of the document.

This content, as Jefferson first wrote it, as the delegates in Philadelphia amended it, and as we have come to regard it, is the subject of Mr. Wills’s elegantly written and stimulating book. Jefferson was clearly bothered by even the smallest changes made in his draft, and Wills includes at the end of the book a copy of the document Jefferson circulated among his friends, showing precisely what had been added to and omitted from his original version. The author also includes a provocative prologue arguing that Lincoln, “a 19th century romantic,” enshrined the Declaration in a way that would have been incomprehensible to that “18th century empiricist,” Jefferson.