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MIT historian Pauline Maier, author of American Scripture, wins coveted faculty award

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- American historian Pauline Maier, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History, is the recipient of this year's Killian Faculty Achievement Award.

For more than 25 years, the Killian Faculty Achievement Award has recognized extraordinary accomplishments by full-time members of the MIT faculty, honoring the late James R. Killian Jr., former president and chairman of MIT.

The recipient is named Killian Award Lecturer for one academic year, during which he/she presents one or more lectures on professional activities to the MIT community. The award carries an honorarium of $8,000.

Professor Maier is "a genuine all-rounder," said Rafael L. Bras, chairman of the Killian award committee and professor and department head of civil and environmental engineering. She's "one of the very rare individuals who performs at a supremely high level in professional achievement, teaching and Institute service," he said when announcing the award at the May 20 faculty meeting.

"I couldn't be more surprised," said Professor Maier. "I'm deeply moved. I can't think of anything that would move me more.

"The award was a total surprise, and especially gratifying since, having once served on the Killian Award Selection Committee, I know how formidable the competition is," she said.

Maier, a leading scholar of America's colonial period, has such a depth of knowledge of the American Revolution and so much enthusiasm for her subject that a student once commented that she "speaks like she was there."

Her latest book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, was published last year to wide academic and public acclaim.

The book traces the transformation of the Declaration of Independence from a document drafted by Thomas Jefferson and brilliantly revised by committee to "a national scripture whose preamble and concluding paragraph -- boilerplate materials at the time that were freely borrowed from dozens of local resolutions on independence -- became revered principles that have shaped America's identity and political ideology for nearly two hundred years," he noted.

The book describes how the document itself -- encased in massive, bronze-framed, bulletproof glass containers filled with inert helium -- has become a national shrine. It is lowered at night into a vault of reinforced concrete and steel to protect it against damage, including a bomb attack.

In the book, Maier focuses on post-independence politics; the clash between the Republicans and the Federalists and the subsequent clash between southern defenders of slavery and northern abolitionists over "All men are created equal;" as well as battles over who was responsible for the preamble and how it should be interpreted.

American Scripture includes an examination of some 90 state and local "declarations of independence" written between April and July 1776 that have been forgotten but which, Maier says, made a better case for independence than Jefferson's Declaration. Although many others had input into the final version, Jefferson took so much credit for the document that his tombstone cites his authorship of the Declaration of Independence but not his presidency.

At the faculty meeting, Maier noted that the book is not, as some reviewers have suggested, an attack on Jefferson. "The book is a testament to the capacity of people working together, on committees and through the political process, to act creatively and to produce innovations of lasting significance," she said.

Maier received a Ph.D. degree in American history from Harvard University in 1968. When studying the revolution's impact on the United States up to the time of the Civil War, she looked at early American corporations, which began to multiply after 1776 and were from the first recognized as having major social, economic and political clout.

On leave this semester, Maier is collaborating with Merritt Roe Smith, Cutten Professor of the History of Technology, and two other scholars on a projected history of the United States, funded by the Sloan Foundation, that will make science and technology integral parts of the larger story.

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