Book Review: Inventing America

Inventing America:  Jefferson’s Declaration Of Independence, by Gary Wills


Let it be clearly understood, this is a bad book, but it is bad in an instructive way.  In reading this book, I was struck by how often the author makes air quotes around two or three words at a time and makes strong statements that are unsupported by other sources, and the book does not even include endnotes and a bibliography at the end, which this book really is missing.  It struck me that the author was using the texts of the American founding in search of proof texts for his own progressive political ideology and came to the texts as someone looking for support for his defective worldview rather than as someone seeking to learn from them or seeking to understand the Founding Fathers as they were.  The author makes a particularly ironic comment that looking anachronistically at the founders causes problems and proceeds to do that through the entirety of this book.  To be sure, Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence are popular subjects for people to write about [1], but there are far better books one can look at if one wants to know about what Thomas Jefferson write.  All one finds out here is what Garry Wills thinks, and that is not particularly worthwhile.

This book consists of 27 fairly short chapters totaling about 360 pages in five parts.  The first part looks at the Declaration of Independence as a revolutionary charter, the second part as a scientific paper, the third part as a moral paper, the fourth part as a sentimental paper, and the fifth part as a symbol.  Throughout the author’s attempts to examine the different layers of the Declaration of Independence and the origin of Thomas Jefferson’s thought are undercut by a variety of assumptions.  Among these is the way that the author seeks to discredit Thomas Jefferson on account of his conduct as a slaveowner while simultaneously claiming from Thomas Jefferson a legitimacy for his own form of egalitarian politics.  The author’s ambivalence towards its subject and his confidence in his own insight and knowledge lead him to combine a sound comparison of Thomas Jefferson’s thought with that of the Scottish enlightenment and with some unsound and facile repetitions of the trite statement that the American founders were slavish imitators of the Whig tradition of political thinkers.  The raw materials for a good book are present, but this author is simply not equipped to take his subject matter seriously enough and respectfully enough to make this a good book.

In reading this book, we find out a little bit about Thomas Jefferson, but much of that is unreliable because it depends on the word of the author, and quite frankly he is not someone whose word can be trusted as an authority of anything.  Really, we find out far more in this book about Gary Wills, and that is instructive in dealing with progressive political philosophy in general.  We learn the ways that the thought of the founding fathers is mined for proof texts to support bogus contemporary political ideas, and how there is a great deal of chronological snobbery even in those who claim an expertise in classics.  The author also makes some fundamental assumptions that are unexamined, such as the extent to which we can look at Thomas Jefferson as a representative example of the political thought of his time.  We can also learn that even people who fancy themselves smart can be extremely foolish, such as the way that the author continually misrepresents the founders as having created thirteen states rather than one nation.  When the author shows himself unable to understand the nature of American federalism from the moment of its founding, something amply demonstrated, for example, by Harry Jaffa in his own writings on the Declaration of Independence, it is hard to believe what he has to say about anything else.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Inventing America

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power | Edge Induced Cohesion

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