I tended to enjoy Pauline Maier’s impressive historical scholarship, even though much of the time I thought she reached the wrong conclusions about the meaning of the ideas and events she wrote about, especially the Declaration of Independence. She seemed to embody a trait found often among historians, of mastering and uncovering important facts, but having no systematic grasp of the wider theoretical implications of the subject matter. She often depreciated the achievement and significance of the work of the Founders without really meaning to.
R.S. Hill got at some of the problem with his excellent review of Maier’s American Scripture in National Review back in 1997:
The title American Scripture calls attention to the theme with which this book opens and closes. In the Introduction Professor Maier makes a less-than-reverent pilgrimage to the National Archives, where the Declaration is enshrined as if to be worshipped. In the Epilogue she visits the Jefferson Memorial, its temple walls inscribed with a truncated Declaration, as the Decalogue may be seen in a church. In between she has shown early-nineteenth-century Americans beginning to sacralize the document, using religious language in connection with it: “reverence,” “sacred,” “holy” — all Jefferson’s words. She disapproves of this idolatry, as she thinks it. “Why,” she asks, viewing the devotion at the altar in the Archives, “should the American people file by, looking up reverentially at a document that was and is their creation, as if it were handed down by God, or were the work of superhuman men?”
The answer is this: Precisely in order to learn that the document is their creation — that the American nation’s powers are just because they are derived from the consent of the governed. And also to learn that their creating and sustaining act is to be guided by a purpose not of their creation: to secure rights given by an incomparably higher Creator to those whom that Creator made equal. They are not taught that the document is their creation in the most radical sense: it does not express freely or otherwise chosen values; it states self-evident truths. But though they are self-evident, passion and interest may contend against reason; and so wise statesmen, such as Jefferson, call on the auxiliaries of sentiment. (That the “blood of our heroes” has been shed for the “creed of our political faith” does not make its articles any truer, but it does make them more precious.)
Professor Maier fears that this kind of “symbolism undercuts the exercise of public responsibilities.” Expunge it, and then let “interests clash and argument prosper.” She offers no historical evidence to support her apprehensions. And it seems that, if there is agreement on premises and principles, argument about their interpretation and application can prosper. If there is not (“a house divided”), dangerous arguments may prosper. And if there is agreement that premises and principles are values, no argument may prosper. Interests will of course clash.
One more point: A text recognizing God as creator, judge, and providential governor of the world might well be thought of as in some sense sacred.
Then there’s this little telling detail at the end of the NY Times obit:
In an interview with CommonWealth magazine in 1998, Professor Maier told of sharing a cab in Washington, as people often do. Her companion told her that she was from Africa, and Professor Maier replied that Africa must be beautiful.
The woman said that the United States was better, and Professor Maier casually asked why she thought so, expecting the woman to extol perhaps the country’s wealth or job opportunities. The woman replied that she admired the country’s Constitution, its government of laws and its principles of equal rights.
Her comment, Professor Maier said, “absolutely overwhelmed me.”
One might well ask why she needed a foreigner to “overwhelm” her with such a sentiment? Why aren’t more native born Americans—at least the ones with college educations Maier meets most of the time—capable of such sentiments? Ah—the question here supplies its own answer.
SCOTT adds: Interested readers will want to check out Professor Maier’s last book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-89, reviewed admiringly by luminaries including Michael McConnell, Richard Brookhiser and Akhil Amar. It is the book that will stand as her legacy.