Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, By Danielle Allen
The average person probably knows at least a little bit of the Declaration of Independence such as “all men are created equal.” Some more use parts of it for their own ideological ends, again especially that part. But, how many have closely read the document, slowly and carefully?
Danielle Allen teaches political theory and that is the focus on this book: a careful philosophical analysis of the Declaration of Independence. The book provides enough historical context, including an opening timeline, to understand the moment and key players involved. This includes lesser-known people, such as a woman that was involved in publishing the document.
But, the focus of the book is a textual analysis of the Declaration in a series of short chapters (fifty in all; the book is under 300 pages long). As she did with her students, both standard college students and night school part-timers, she makes this a group effort — a lot of “we” used. After all, the document is our “patrimony,” our inheritance.
Along with a careful analysis of the text, the book has an overall theme. Equality infuses the document from first to last — from “equal station” to a pledge to “each other.” Many argue the Declaration is a more libertarian document, or at the very least that its promotion of liberty conflicts with its equality principles. She denies this. Equality is necessary for liberty.
Again, the title: Our Declaration [it belongs to us all]: A [Slow] Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense [both the document and the book is such a defense] of Equality.
Favorite Quote of the Book
It is this: equality has precedence over freedom; only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.
The book argues that the Declaration of Independence makes a “philosophical argument” focused on equality. Some people focus on the freedom aspects, but freedom requires equality.
Should I Read It?
This book is not intended to be a historical account though it has enough history to allow those with little knowledge of the events to get a sense of things. It is a philosophical analysis of the Declaration of Independence. The author herself notes that this is a complex undertaking.
The author opens the book discussing teaching two sets of students: typical college students and night school students, who might stereotypically be labeled “ordinary working class.” Both sets of people might enjoy reading this book. Again, they should be aware that it is not focused on history, and probably requires a high school level reading comprehension.
It requires careful reading to fully appreciate; a lot of material to absorb. Allen, however, does not write over the head of someone who is not taking one of her survey courses at an Ivy League institution. A bit of “slow reading” will do the job. If you are open to that, including her carefully taking you through the material (with many illustrations helping), check it out.
The book would be useful both for a college course on this subject or for self-education. Perhaps, breaking it down like a class or class assignment might be helpful for some. Likewise, it is one of those books that benefits from re-reading, perhaps around July 4th or Election Day — since she both highlights the document and the importance of political equality.
Those who like this book also might like various other books on the Declaration of Independence. The classic account was written by Carl Becker. Pauline Maier has a more recent book more appropriate for the general reader, American Scripture: How America Declared Its Independence from Britain. Alan Dershowitz wrote a critical look at its philosophical aspects, America Declares Independence; it is geared to the average reader.
Chronology of the Declaration
Summary of relevant events in the American colonies from July 1774 to January 1777 involved in the creation of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence shows us the importance of equality. Freedom and liberty both require equality. Equality and freedom are not in tension. The Declaration also shows the power of words; political equality requires an ability to understand the power of language.
Part I: Origins
We first get a reprint of the document itself. Read it straight through once.
Prof. Allen explains how she truly understood the Declaration only by “slow reading” it with her night class of ordinary working class Americans. She wanted her students, and now us the readers, to “take possession” of the text and its message of equality and political democracy.
Slow reading, particularly by a verse by verse reading of the Bible, itself was something first taught to her by her parents (scholar and librarian). Her respect for political equality is a personal journey as a bi-racial person from childhood to postgraduate education to teaching.
Part II: Who Wrote the Declaration of Independence
Who? A group of people — a committee. This reflects how our democracy itself works.
Thomas Jefferson, known for A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1775) that examined why the colonists rebelled, might have written the first draft. [We get a quick summary of the history, but Allen says she will emphasize philosophical meaning in her analysis.]
But, a committee of five and the complete Continental Congress (editing out about a quarter of it) worked it over. And, each colony had to agree to independence itself. Political democracy is a messy process that in this case, she figures took as many people and groups of people as varieties of Heinz ketchup (57; the food reference is mine).
Who? The writer, the politicians (Adams and Lee particularly highlighted), the committee, the editors (the Congress particularly), the people, and the printers who added their own style flourishes (such as capitalization and punctuation choices) that affect the final results.
Part III: The Art of Democratic Writing
The Declaration is a form of a memorandum.
Yes, comparable to a business memo, but also in the traditional sense of a type of diplomatic message, summarizing the state of a question, justifying a decision, or recommending a course of action. The basics include: principles, facts, and judgments.
It can also be broken down by specific actions; declaring reasons, presenting facts, declaring a new state of affairs (a divorce from Great Britain and a new marriage/union to each other), and making pledges (to each other). A marriage has a minister; they directly appeal to God’s will.
Democratic memos have a wide audience (here the “candid world”) with high expectations that they will understand and respect the contents. “Candid” in this sense means “honest,” and the Declaration assumes the readers have a moral sense. Again, the document is the product of a democratic process, including people accepting a need for independence.
Part IV: Reading the Course of Events
The Declaration is a very short introduction to political philosophy that is about two ideas: freedom and equality. These words are complex and open to confusion.
The word “equality” is not the same as “the same.” The Declaration argues five aspects:
- Equality of political power: one party cannot dominate the other [status]
- Equal access to the tool of government
- Equal involvement in collective intelligence (problems/solutions)
- Equal reciprocity: Each gives something and gets something in return.
- Equality in ownership of public life: Equality in citizenship including voting.
The book now begins to analyze the text of the Declaration starting at the beginning.
The colonists’ was on a “course,” like a river’s current strongly pushing them in one direction. They considered themselves “one people,” a group with shared political institutions. These institutions allowed them after independence to be “equal” to the great powers like Great Britain and Spain, of the day. All these nations were political institutions.
The course of events required the colonists to declare independence.
Part V: Facing Necessity
The book now discusses the Declaration’s understanding of the concept of natural law.
The “course of the river” metaphor suggests the “laws of nature” is partially a matter of looking at our place in nature itself. The situation compelled, as a matter of necessity, independence. If something is required for one’s well-being, as long as it does not harm another, we should respect a person’s right to that thing. This alone can be used to accept the argument.
But, the committee (less so Jefferson) added a second reason: “Nature’s God” and other God language later on (open-ended to be inclusive; not necessarily either a Deist or Christian God) set forth certain moral laws and obligations. This adds special weight to the argument made.
Either way, each of us have a moral sense that can be used to judge the necessity of the matter. Therefore, it is appropriate to spell things out for the “candid world” to decide.
Part VI: Matters of Principle
This part discusses the most famous second sentence of the Declaration that starts with “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
“Self-evident” means something that can be reasoned out. Human reason can determine that each of us, equally, have the power to live, be free, and pursue happiness. These things are “endowed,” provided for us like a dowry of a wife, at birth. Unlike other animals, we also have the ability to form (and if necessary, re-form) governments to further these ends.
Each of us are best able to determine what is “most likely” to make us happy. This is an important aspect of equality — each person’s ability to take part in government since each person has a role in protecting the happiness of the whole community.
Part VII: Matters of Fact
Prudence and habit* leads us to bear with various wrongs. But, at some point, we realize (it is like a physical reaction) things have gotten so bad that it is no longer bearable. This is so especially if the wrongs are intentional. Such is the case here with King George III.
The “train of abuses” (tyranny) are general wrongs that provide us with an understanding of the colonists’ sense of justice. A form of “crowdsourcing” was used here, involving each colonist (equality again), to get the sense of the matter. They can be categorized thusly:
- Undermine the common good
- Undermine the rule of law and sovereignty of the people
- Block material prosperity and growth
- Undermine the Judicial System
- Harass and make people vulnerable
- Violate the rules of war
The colonialists repeatedly tried to show the king that he was violating their rights. But, the king unjustly continuously ignored them. He was not responsive, as was his obligation, to their needs. This was clearly intentional (any reasonable person can see it) and the final straw.
* Both prudence and habit help explain how the colonialists spoke of equality and rights while allowing slavery and cruelly treating Native Americans. It was also a matter of ideas surpassing real-life experience of another path. The ideas did help start them down that path.
Part VIII: Drawing Conclusions
The British people also failed to listen to reason; ethnic relations alone is not enough for the new nation that is being created. Support of tyranny justifies war; peace = friendship.
Now justified, independence is declared. It is a group (“we”) effort, providing one final example of equality that is necessary for freedom. Each person is part of the public community, their good intentions here shown by taking an oath on their “sacred honor.”
The Declaration of Independence is an important argument for the importance of equality to freedom. Too often, freedom alone is highlighted or libertyis argued to be an antagonist of freedom. A close reading, which we all should do, shows the folly of this path.
Note: As of October 2021, an “error” she flags in the National Archives copy (a period after “pursuit of happiness”) is still there. The period interferes with the flow of the argument.
Points to Ponder
The author speaks of a “slow reading” approach that she began as a child and later used in her own teaching. Her family took turns reading one chapter of the Bible, verse by verse.
And, when she used this approach with her night students here, she found new insights about the Declaration of Independence. Try this for other documents, such as the Gettysburg Address and the U.S. Constitution. Do you find yourself with new insights about each?
Over history, many groups pushing for change such as blacks, women, and labor have appealed to the Declaration of Independence. See, e.g., For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence by Alexander Tsesis. The author, a mixed raced African American woman, also claims the document as her own. How does this book help explain why this is so?
About the Author
Danielle Allen is currently a professor at Harvard University (she was a professor at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey at the time of this book).
From her website, she is “Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought.” She is also currently running for governor of Massachusetts.
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Is “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” a reliable source?
The author is a scholar in political philosophy and her analysis addresses a subject for which she is well skilled in discussing. It does not try to be an in-depth historical account, but focuses on the text of the Declaration and its meaning.
I found it reliable and her reasoning as a whole convincing. The reader might at some point along the way disagree in some way with her reasoning out the principles of the document. There are a lot of steps involved. But, she carefully provides her analysis while doing so.
The book is well sourced with endnotes and bibliography resources. Also, Joseph Ellis and Gordon Wood, two top historians in the field of American Revolution scholarship are big fans. They are helpful “character witnesses” of the reliability of the material.
By Joe Cocurullo