American historian Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History, is the recipient of this year's Killian Faculty Achievement Award.
Professor Maier is "a genuine all-rounder," said Professor Rafael L. Bras, chairman of the Killian award committee 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."
Professor Maier, who is on leave this semester, would not have been present at the faculty meeting except for Dean Philip Khoury and Peter Perdue, history professor and head of the history faculty. They brought her to Building 10 on the way to a supposed meeting in President Charles Vest's office with a potential donor to the School of Humanities and Social Science. Then, outside Rm 10-250, Dean Khoury said, "Pauline, this is where we're really going."
"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.
Professor 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 impact on the teaching of history in and out of MIT is extraordinary," Professor Bras said. In 1986, Professor Maier wrote a junior high school textbook and chaired the Committee on the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Requirements that shaped MIT's present undergraduate curriculum.
Her latest book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, was published last year to wide academic and public acclaim.
"So much has been written about the Declaration of Independence that it hardly seemed possible for a scholar to bring in fresh materials and a fresh interpretation, yet she has succeeded brilliantly and in the process supplanted the standard works," Professor Bras said.
The book traces the transformation of the Declaration 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 200 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, Professor 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.
The preamble, quoted memorably by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, "became an implicit standard against which all governments could be compared and found wanting unless they secured men's inalienable rights," Professor Bras said. "It thus became an instrument by which Americans not only judged themselves but judged others."
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, Professor 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, Professor 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. "While Professor Bras was reading his citation, I realized that I came to understand that fact at MIT, in the course of working with other members of the faculty on committees and other cooperative projects. In short, my 'service' at the Institute fed directly into my scholarship."
Professor Maier received the PhD 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.
Two earlier works, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 and The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams, looked at the American Revolution as a mass movement, exploring how it was organized as well as the role played by political elites and the evolution of their political thinking.
Professor Maier has said that despite MIT's "misleading public image" as little more than an engineering school, the Institute has always generously supported her research. She points out in the book's acknowledgments that American Scripture was written during summers and two terms of paid leave from MIT, and virtually all the costs of research were met from a research fund attached to the Kenan chair, a post to which she was appointed several years ago by Professor John Deutch (then provost) and the late Dean Nan Friedlaender.
And, she said, several insights in the book were suggested by undergraduates "in the probing classroom discussions that are possible and, indeed, common given the small-classroom context of MIT humanities subjects and the intelligence of our students.
"The book is therefore an MIT creation in many ways; and I am immensely grateful to the committee, my faculty colleagues, and the Institute itself for its support on this occasion and over the almost two decades I have spent with enormous satisfaction as an MIT professor," she said.
While on leave, Professor Maier has been collaborating with Merritt Roe Smith, the 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 into integral parts of the larger story.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.