Reading List

Independent Reading

The best books and Web sites about the birth of America.

The Declaration of Independence

Several years ago, I went to a Fourth of July barbecue in the Hudson Valley, N.Y. After we’d had a few beers, the host led his guests up to a nearby Revolutionary War redoubt, where he proceeded to read aloud from the Declaration of Independence. My wife found this hokey and embarrassing, but I loved it. If evangelicals are going insist on putting the Christ back into Christmas, we secular humanists can take the trouble to bring Jefferson to our Independence Day celebrations.

Thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to get a feel for the drafting of the Declaration as never before. A good place to start is at the Library of Congress Web site, where you can view the lone surviving fragment of Jefferson’s first draft and examine the holograph manuscript of what’s known as the rough draft, with its strangely moving cross-outs, insertions, and pasted-on flap. is the best site for tracking the changes made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and for comparing the language of the various versions. Who says you can’t edit by committee? “That all Men are created equal and independent; that from that equal Creation they derive Rights inherent and unalienable”—that was reasonably well said. “That they are endowed by their creator with inherent & inalienable rights” is slightly more elegant. “That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”—now that really nails it. For a singing version, order the delightful musical 1776 from Netflix and force your children to watch it with you.

The most dazzling revisionist account of Jefferson’s handiwork remains Garry Wills’ Inventing America, which argues that Jefferson was mainly influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith, rather than by John Locke, as I learned in high school. Wills goes to great lengths to prove that Jefferson hadn’t even read Locke’s Two Treatises of Government by that summer in Philadelphia. Pauline Maier’s American Scripture revises the story in a different direction, away from the conception of the flame-haired founding father as solitary genius. In drafting the Declaration, Maier argues, Jefferson drew on dozens of local expressions of similar sentiment. The ideas expressed in the Declaration, she contends, were in the Colonial air. 

The worst bit of congressional editing was the deletion, at the insistence of the Southern delegates, of Jefferson’s furious denunciation of the British slave trade. The contradiction of owning 200 or so slaves while naming King George a pirate and a prostitute for allowing them to be owned seems not to have occurred to Jefferson at the time. Thanks to DNA testing and Web-based genealogy tools, the dimensions of this paradox continue to unfold. Annette Gordon-Reed’s book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was largely responsible for initiating a general historical consensus that Jefferson did father several children with his wife’s half-sister, who was a slave. In her forthcoming book, The Hemingses of Monticello (you can pre-order it on Amazon), Gordon-Reed draws on Jefferson’s passion for record-keeping to tell the story of the black branch of the family over the course of a century, up to the sale of Monticello in 1831. The darker-skinned descendants still aren’t welcome at Jefferson family picnics. You can follow the filings in the paternity suit on the Monticello Web site.

Among revisionist historians, my favorite is David Hackett Fischer, who is both a masterful storyteller and a brilliant debunker of patriotic myth. Fischer’s wonderful book Paul Revere’s Ride demolishes the hoary fable of Longfellow’s poem. In Washington’s Crossing, Fischer deconstructs Emanuel Leutze’s heroic painting and gives us in its place a textured narrative of Washington’s military leadership. My favorite of Fischer’s books, however, is Albion’s Seed, which demonstrates that our treasured American customs are merely transplanted British folkways. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance notwithstanding, the true facts about American history seem a lot more exciting these days than the legend.

A version of this article also appears in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section.