Pauline Maier, a historian who was a leading authority on the Revolutionary War era and who argued that Thomas Jefferson’s role in creating the Declaration of Independence had been exaggerated, died Aug. 12 at a hospice in Cambridge, Mass. She was 75.
She had lung cancer, said her husband, Charles S. Maier, who noted that his wife did not smoke.
Dr. Maier (pronounced MAY-er) was a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was the author or co-author of six books, including popular textbooks used in middle schools and colleges.
In her other books, she breathed new life into seemingly familiar historical subjects — including the Declaration and the Constitution — by returning to the original 18th-century documents and discovering insights. She wrote with a narrative flair that was rare and refreshing for an academic.
“What she did is to go back and look at everything fresh,” Mary Beth Norton, a historian at Cornell University, said Thursday. “She paid a lot of attention to what was happening on the ground at the time.”
Dr. Maier was perhaps best known for her 1997 book, “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” which stirred controversy for its assertion that the Declaration was a collaborative effort and did not spring, pure and unfiltered, from the mind of Jefferson. The New York Times named it one of the best books of the year.
In her book, Dr. Maier uncovered more than 90 little-known local resolutions in which communities throughout Colonial America declared independence from the British crown. Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, she wrote, simply reflected a growing political movement that reached its culmination on July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress.
“He was no Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God,” Dr. Maier wrote of Jefferson. “What generations of Americans came to revere was not Jefferson’s but Congress’s Declaration.”
She described the collective effort that produced the Declaration as “an act of group editing that has to be one of the great marvels of history.”
Jefferson’s original text was skillfully edited by other Founding Fathers, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Henry Lee, who removed some of what Dr. Maier viewed as rhetorical excesses.
Over Jefferson’s objections, they sometimes made his prose more graceful and direct. Jefferson’s original line, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” was changed to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
The awkward phrase “from that equal creation they derive rights” was amended to one of the most memorable and ringing passages of the Declaration: “they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
She gave Jefferson credit for putting pen to paper, but she had little patience with modern-day mythologizers who credited him with single-handedly conceiving the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson, Dr. Maier declared in “American Scripture,” was “the most overrated person in American history.”
Her assertion drew a few objections, but most historians were impressed by Dr. Maier’s analysis of how the Declaration of Independence emerged in the incremental steps through the give-and-take of Colonial politics.
“She didn’t see it as some great philosophical statement, as we tend to do, but as a document that came out of its times,” Gordon S. Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian from Brown University, said Thursday. “She had no political agenda. There was nothing that drove her except trying to reconstruct the past as honestly as possible.”
Pauline Alice Rubbelke was born April 27, 1938, in St. Paul, Minn. Her father was a firefighter.
She attended Radcliffe College, at the time the women’s affiliate of Harvard University, graduating in 1960, with a bachelor’s degree in English and history. She wanted to be a newspaper reporter before becoming enchanted with the 18th century.
After studying at the London School of Economics as a Fulbright scholar, she received a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1968, as one of the first female doctoral students of Pulitzer-
winning historian Bernard Bailyn.
She taught at the University of Massachusetts Boston from 1968 to 1977 and was at the University of Wisconsin for one year before joining MIT’s faculty in 1978. She often contributed book reviews to The Washington Post, the New York Times and other publications.
Survivors include her husband of 52 years, Harvard history professor Charles S. Maier of Cambridge; three children, Andrea Maier of Brussels, Nicholas Maier of Belmont, Mass., and Jessica Maier of Cambridge; her father, Irvin Rubbelke of St. Paul; two sisters; two brothers; and six grandchildren.
Her earlier books, “From Resistance to Revolution” (1972) and “The Old Revolutionaries” (1980), described the early movement for independence in the colonies.
Her final book, “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788” (2010), showed how hard it was for the Constitution to win approval in some states: In Massachusetts, the vote was 187 to 168; in Virginia, it was 89 to 79.
“The way she wrote it,” Norton, the Cornell historian said, “it was like a cliffhanger.”
The book won the $50,000 George Washington Book Prize for the year’s best study of the Revolutionary era.
“You’d think after all these years of studying the Revolution, you wouldn’t be surprised,” Dr. Maier told the Boston Globe in 1997, “ but you are. And you go ah-ah-ah!”