1997 - American Scripture
Holy density, Batman! American Scripture is Non-Fiction (note the capital N and F). It is dense, it is dry, and it is chock full of things I'm sure you didn't know about the founding document of this country. For example, the format and even some of the wording was borrowed from previous declarations made by British citizens and politicians in earlier centuries. And the Declaration of Independence wasn't even the first declaration of independence in what was to become the United States. As Pauline Maier explains,
"It's worth our while to stop and examine the other 'declarations of independence' that Americans in colonies (or, as they soon became, states) and localities adopted between April and July 1776, of which Virginia's was one among many. There are, in fact, at least ninety documents in that category, and perhaps still more waiting to be found. Most have been forgotten under the influence of our national obsession with 'the' Declaration of Independence.'" p. 48, emphasis mine
Ninety! Ninety declarations before the big one. Some that Thomas Jefferson himself drafted. It's certainly possible that I learned about this in history class and have since forgotten it, but more likely this is a piece of information that is deemed irrelevant, a distraction from the American Exceptionalist vibe most U.S. history classes exude. As a librarian and simply as a reader I care--and it matters!--that this document was not one-of-a-kind. The Declaration of Independence was a continuation of a writing tradition. Certainly, it was an important instance, but the fact that it was in line with contemporary political means of communication actually adds to the weight of its import. This wasn't a work of unique, political genius by Thomas Jefferson alone. This wasn't a manifesto written by lunatic colonists. It wasn't an anomalous petition to King George III. It was a formal, legal document that followed legal precedent which is why it worked! Here's a great chart from the book that shows some of the documents that influenced the Declaration:
Gaining this insight alone made this book worth reading. There were plenty of other interesting nuggets, as well. Possibly because the Declaration was a legal document and not yet "the most sacred of all American political scripture" (p. 129), initial excitement over independence from Britain was focused on the idea, not the mechanism by which it was delivered.
"What were Americans celebrating with their processions, their ceremonial bonfires, their 'illuminations,' the firing of guns and ringing of bells, the printed pages that they 'fixed up' on the walls of their homes? The news, not the vehicle that brought it; Independence, the end of monarchy, and the assumption of self-government, not the document that announced Congress's decision to break with Britain." p. 160
And I absolutely have to share this bit:
"In later years, moreover, the 'Anniversary of the United States of America' came to be celebrated on the day Congress finally approved the Declaration of Independence. That custom began almost by accident. In 1776, John Adams--to the amusement of some later Americans--suggested that July 2 should be 'celebrated succeeding generations as the great Anniversary Festival' with 'pomp and parade, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other from this time forward, forever more.' But in 1777, no member of Congress thought of marking the day until the 2nd of July, and no mention was made of it until the third. The first great 'Anniversary of Independence' was therefore celebrated at Philadelphia--and, it seems, in a handful of other cities and towns--on the 4th, which thereafter became the tradition." p.161
As I mentioned, and as you can gather from the excerpts, this book is dense but well-written and, most importantly, thoroughly researched. I was surprisingly engaged in this 336-page book describing a document with just over 1,300 words. If you're interested in well-researched, deep-dive non-fiction, I recommend the following.
- Salt by Mark Kurlansky
- The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace
- Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
These titles are what some call "micro-histories," or the very narrow and deep focus on one topic. I also recommend anything written by Mary Roach, who often writes in this style.
Keep turning the page,