Obituary: Pauline Maier / Historian described Jefferson as 'overrated'

April 27, 1938 - Aug. 12, 2013

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Pauline Maier, a distinguished historian of the United States' formative years whose challenges to conventional thinking included the assertion that Thomas Jefferson was "overrated," died Aug. 12 in Cambridge, Mass. She was 75.

The cause was lung cancer, said her husband, Charles S. Maier, a history professor at Harvard University.

Pauline Maier, who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three decades, produced a diverse body of work, including textbooks, a history of technology's impact on the United States and a 1980 collection of short biographies, "The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams."

One of her most influential books, "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence," published in 1997, was inspired by a visit to the Library of Congress, where in looking at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, she was struck by the thought that the documents, encased under bulletproof glass, seemed "pretty dead," she recalled.

The purpose of "American Scripture," she said, was to chip away at the mythology that had come to surround the Declaration in the 19th century, culminating in Abraham Lincoln's elevating it to nothing less than "the father of all moral principles." Her research suggested that people in 1776 saw it less grandly: as simply an announcement that America was now independent and a rationalization as to why.

The Declaration was drafted by a committee, though Jefferson unquestionably wrote most of it. For example, she said, members of the Continental Congress struck down the adjective "unremitting" to characterize the king of England's "injuries and usurpations," and replaced it with "repeated." She wrote that a full quarter of Jefferson's original text was deleted -- "sensibly" so, she said.

Ms. Maier dismissed Jefferson's grand philosophical language, particularly in the oft-quoted second paragraph. She called his reference to "self-evident" truths a distillation of Locke, Milton and others that was "absolutely conventional among Americans of his time." She called Jefferson "the most overrated person in American history."

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Richard Alan Ryerson, editor in chief of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said Ms. Maier had succeeded in her argument that the Declaration should not be regarded as "sacred text." But others disputed her minimizing Jefferson's importance. "We know nothing that would deny Jefferson the principal credit," R.S. Hill wrote in National Review.

Ms. Maier aimed her books at general as well as scholarly audiences by building suspense in telling stories whose outcome readers already knew. Her model was the popular historian Barbara Tuchman, who made a point of never mentioning an outcome until its proper moment in the story.

Pauline Alice Rubbelke was born on April 27, 1938, in St. Paul, Minn., where her father was a firefighter. She attended Radcliffe and met Charles Maier, a Harvard student, at The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, where they both worked.

They both earned doctorates at Harvard and lived in Cambridge, Mass.

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