The Idea of America

Alasdair MacIntyre

  • Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence by Garry Wills
    Athlone, 398 pp, £12.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 485 11201 9

Garry Wills has two distinct aims in this book. He wishes to demythologise American beliefs about the Declaration of Independence in order to discredit the view that the United States is founded upon an idea, upon a set of moral beliefs. In so doing, he is trying to refute, not only external commentators such as G.K. Chesterton, who wrote that ‘America is the only nation in the world founded upon a creed,’ but more importantly a central American tradition whose hero and spokesman is Lincoln. Lincoln is for Wills the prototype of the political moralist who is prepared to appeal to the Declaration against the status quo, even the constitutional status quo. From this moralism, so Wills believes, spring many of the evils that the United States, its aims sanctified in its own eyes by its high principles, has brought upon the world and itself. Yet it is, on Wills’s view, a moralism deeply alien to Jefferson’s own beliefs and intentions as embodied in his drafts of the Declaration.

Wills’s second aim, therefore, is to decipher those beliefs and intentions and to recover what he believes to be the lost truth about Jefferson’s philosophy. Jefferson was not, as so many have believed, a Lockean individualist. The influence of the French Enlightenment is far less important than some have insisted. The Jefferson of the Declaration was, in fact, a close disciple of the Scottish Enlightenment, influenced by Reid, Smith, Hume, and above all by Francis Hutcheson. This conclusion emerges from what is presented as a study of Jefferson’s reading and writing joined to a detailed analysis of the 18th-century meanings of key expressions in Jefferson’s draft. In so concluding, Wills sets himself against the scholarly tradition on these matters: Carl Becker, Adrienne Koch and Daniel Boorstin all receive short shrift. But the most distinguished and authoritative of all exponents of a view of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration which is quite incompatible with Wills’s account receives the most discourteous rebuff of all – at least in this capacity. I mean, of course, Thomas Jefferson.

On 9 May 1825, Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee about the Declaration that ‘neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.’ It was intended, Jefferson goes on, ‘to place before mankind the common sense of the subject ...’

In the one paragraph which he devotes to this letter, Wills notes the main point that it makes without noticing the bearing of that point on his own project: ‘He is deliberately citing works of general regard, rather than a set of specific influences on him.’ Indeed he is, and he is telling us not to look for the antecedents of the Declaration in ‘specific influences on him’, but in ‘works of general regard’. It is perhaps significant that Wills omits from his quotation the first sentence quoted, since that strengthens the case for holding that Wills’s whole project is misconceived.

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