The Great Declaration: A Book For Young Americans, by Henry Steele Commager
Most famous for his massive compilation of primary sources for the American Civil War The Blue And The Gray, in this short book (about 110 pages or so), historian Henry Steele Commager provides a work that is perfect for use in American Government or American History classes as a way of providing context for the passage of and importance of the Declaration of Independence. It should go without saying that this book is contrary to the current trends against American exceptionalism, but coming from a day and age where sober and realistic patriotism was the norm, this book offers a critique of idolatry of the founding fathers of our nation while maintaining a high degree of respect for them . The combination between this respect and the author’s customary devotion to sound primary documents demonstrates the sort of work that can be made in a subtle fashion in making young people appropriate with the workings of history, where one’s research into text can guide one’s research and give one an understanding of how people thought and expressed themselves in the past, and how they were just as human as we are today in their own ways.
The contents of this book are very straightforward. The historian begins with the Declaration of Independence itself and asks the reader some straightforward questions about it to introduce the context of the document and the tumultuous times in which it was written. The author then turns his attention to the founding fathers and their lives and careers, demonstrating their mix of talents and abilities and achievements. After this historian turns his attention to the question of defiance or reconciliation, pointing out that it took a great deal of time, over a year after the initial conflict began between the United States and Great Britain, for there to be a sufficient consensus to make the decisive step to declare independence, and that much of that consensus was built on British incompetence in showing respect for the seriousness of the situation and the worthiness of the colonials for self-rule. After this interlude the book steadily goes towards its conclusion with a discussion of the turn of the tide towards independence and the growing feeling for it across all of the colonies, until after the final debate the move for independence was made. The book closes with a discussion of the Declaration itself, where the author separates the sometimes tendentious claims made in support of independence from the sublime principles of universal and divinely given rights and freedoms for all mankind.
There is a great deal to appreciate in this particular book. It is not of a length or content to make it too difficult to read, and it shows a lot of the admirable qualities of the man responsible for it: a firm and close attention to source material, a rare combination of a richly critical mind with the largeness of spirit to be appreciative of elegantly expressed eternal truths, and the skill to write about matters of importance in political history and philosophy in a language that can be understood and appreciated by young people. The result is a book of considerable achievement, and a book anyone would be proud of writing. To be sure, in today’s political climate it is not likely to be a book that is often read, especially in a public school audience, but for home school parents who want to give their children an excellent book to read on American independence, this is a book well worth recommending and celebrating. The fact that this book is likely to be obscure today speaks to our own flaws rather than the flaws of this book. This is a book that ought to be read far more than it is, as it places American independence in a sound context and allows for a critical but respectful attitude towards our nation’s founding and the complex political situation that led to the writing and approval of the Declaration of Independence.
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