The first Documents in Detail session for the 17-18 school year took place on 30 August 2017, with a discussion of the Declaration of Independence. Among the many topics and questions discussed were Jefferson’s idea of an “American Mind,” the issue of Jefferson’s authorship – which was no widely known for years after the document was written – and the many local declarations of independence, hundreds of which were written by towns, churches, and civic groups during the first half of 1776.
The panelists fielded questions about the choice of Jefferson as the primary author and the input and impact of other delegates to the Second Continental Congress, and pointed out that Jefferson’s use of Locke’s ideas and language acted as “18th Century hyperlinks,” which virtually any reader would recognize as important ideas, if not also as the works of John Locke. Also of interest was the discussion of the parts that were left out of the final, accepted draft and the first draft.
This program could work well with students as well as teachers and anyone interested in learning more about why the document was written, what it meant, and what it still means.
Books mentioned include Edmund Morgan’s American Freedom, American Slavery, Jay Fliegelman’s Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance, and Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf’s “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination.