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A Different Idea of Our Declaration

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Cliff Moore
Danielle Allen at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 2008

This is a strange and remarkable book. There must be dozens of books on the Declaration of Independence written from every conceivable point of view—historical, political, theoretical, philosophical, and textual—but no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like this one. If we read the Declaration of Independence slowly and carefully, Danielle Allen believes, then the document can become a basic primer for our democracy. It can be something that all of us—not just scholars and educated elites but common ordinary people—can participate in, and should participate in if we want to be good democratic citizens.

Allen, who is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, came to this extraordinary conclusion when she was teaching for a decade at the University of Chicago. But it was not the young bright-eyed undergraduates whom she taught by day who inspired her. Instead, it was the much older, life-tested adults whom she taught by night who created “the single most transformative experience” of her teaching career.

As she slowly worked her way through the 1,337 words of the Declaration of Independence with her night students, many of whom had no job or were working two jobs or were stuck in dead-end part-time jobs, Allen discovered that the document had meaning for them and that it was accessible to any reader or hearer of its words. By teaching the document to these adult students in the way that she did, she experienced “a personal metamorphosis.” For the first time in her life she came to realize that the Declaration makes a coherent philosophical argument about equality, an argument that could be made comprehensible to ordinary people who had no special training.

By reading and analyzing the words of the Declaration deliberately and with care, her night students

found themselves suddenly as political beings, with a consciousness that had previously eluded them. They built a foundation from which to assess the state of their political world. They gained a vocabulary and rhetorical techniques for arguing about it.

The entire experience with her students “re-gifted to me a text that should have been mine all along. They gave me again the Declaration’s ideals—equality and freedom—and the power of its language.”

Allen is most interested in the idea of equality, and rightly so. Equality has always been the most radical and potent idea in American history. Once released by the American Revolution, it has torn through American society and culture with awesome power. It became what Herman Melville in Moby-Dick labeled “the great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy!” This “Spirit of Equality,” said Melville, did not merely cull the “selectest champions from the kingly commons,” but it spread “one royal mantle of humanity” over all Americans and brought “democratic dignity” to even “the arm that wields a pick and drives a spike.”

Allen doesn’t cite Melville and doesn’t accept his emphasis on the overwhelming power of equality in American culture. In fact, she thinks that we Americans have tended to neglect the idea of equality. Between liberty and equality, “equality,” she says, “has always been the more frail twin,” and “it has now become particularly vulnerable.” She assumes that “libertarianism currently dominates our political imaginations.” Indeed, she contends that for the past half-century we Americans have emphasized liberty at the expense of equality. Are these judgments correct? Aren’t the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights all about equality? With politicians everywhere now talking about inequality, and President Obama even claiming that inequality is “the defining issue of our time,” ideas about equality seem alive and well.

But Allen’s book is not about equality in this conventional sense. She is not really interested in equalities of income or social status. Instead, she wants to focus on what she calls “equal political empowerment.” This involves an

egalitarianism of co-creation and co-ownership of a shared world, an expectation for inclusive participation that fosters in each citizen the self-understanding that she, too, he, too, helps to make, and is responsible for, this world in which we live together.

Allen assumes that there are five facets of her conception of equality embedded in the Declaration and that a slow and deliberate reading of it can bring them to the fore. First, the colonists asserted that their new states were equal to the other powers on the earth. Second, by declaring that “all men are created equal,” the Declaration affirms that each person is the judge of his or her own happiness. Third, the Declaration assumes that each person, however common, contributes to the collective knowledge of the community. Fourth is

the importance of reciprocity or mutual responsiveness to achieving the conditions of freedom. Securing conditions in which no one dominates anyone else requires a form of conversational interaction that rests on and embodies equality in the relationships among the participants.

Finally, the document contends that all of us have an equal stake in the creation of the political order. “If the Declaration is right that all people are created equal—in the sense of all being participants in the project of political judgment—then all people,” Allen concludes,

should be able to read or listen to the Declaration, understand the work that it is doing, and carry on similar work on their own account, with no more help in unleashing their capacities than can be provided by the example of the Declaration itself.

Because Allen writes as if she were having a conversation with her readers, her book inevitably becomes intimate and personal. She tells us about her background as a mixed-race African-American woman. Both her black ancestors on her father’s side and her WASP ancestors on her mother’s side were progressives who gave her family a love of equality, freedom, and education. At the dinner table her parents frequently talked about the Declaration of Independence. But to her embarrassment, Allen admits that she never read the Declaration until she read it with her night students. Now she wants to pass on that experience of “personal metamorphosis” to all of us. Every American, she says, should study the Declaration as she and her night students did. “It would nourish everyone’s capacity for moral reflection. It would prepare us all for citizenship. Together we would learn the democratic arts.”

Allen begins her book with a conventional narrative of how the Declaration of Independence came to be written. She accepts Pauline Maier’s claim that Jefferson was not the author of the Declaration but simply its “draftsman.” Of the five-man committee assigned by the Continental Congress to write it, Jefferson was the least busy and most free to do the drafting. Like Maier, Allen does not get involved in the deep intellectual background to the writing of the Declaration. She simply concludes that “the ingredients of the Declaration of Independence were ready to hand”—ranging from earlier documents issued by the Congress, such as the 1775 “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” to John Adams’s Thoughts on Government of 1776 and the bill of rights written by George Mason for the Virginia constitution. The Declaration of Independence was in fact the product of many hands and many minds.

Since Allen concedes that her “book treads lightly on the historical side of the tale of the Declaration,” her narrative of its creation is not lengthy. In fact, she believes that history can sometimes “function as a barrier to entry” into a document. By playing down its historical background, she wants to make the “encounter with the Declaration easier for readers who have not yet built up a deep historical knowledge base.” Although Allen’s recounting of the process of creation is relatively brief, she does find room to emphasize the many “layers of conversation”—at least fifty, she says—that were involved in getting members of the Congress to agree to the document.

This was an object lesson in “getting things done by means of talk.” The creation of the Declaration involved “democratic writing—group writing,” something that is “not merely difficult; it’s exhausting and draining.” Despite all of its unsavory compromises—the Congress’s eliminating of all references to slavery, for example—this democratic writing, Allen believes, needs to be celebrated. “There is no other way for a free and equal people to chart its course.”

Instead of a historical account of the Declaration, her book is “intentionally philosophical; it focuses almost exclusively on the logical argument of the Declaration and the conceptual terrain of its metaphors.” Hence Allen believes that we don’t need to examine the books Jefferson read in order to understand the Declaration. “Slow reading” of the text is all that is necessary. That alone, Allen says, “is powerful enough to open up its logic.” Her reading of the text could scarcely be slower or more deliberate. In the most remarkable manner she examines and ponders every sentence of the document and sometimes every word of those sentences. The book is a tour de force of close textual analysis.

She begins by asking a simple question. What kind of text is the Declaration? Is it a sacred text? Or a treatise? Or perhaps a law? “In fact, the Declaration is just an ordinary memo.” In a brief chapter, entitled “On Memos,” she explains what she means. Memo, she says, is “short for memorandum, which is Latin for ‘something that needs to be remembered.’” And if that is not clear enough for the reader, Allen presents the example of a memo she had recently been sent by a dean of students at a northeastern college announcing that the dining hall would henceforth stay open longer on weekdays and offering reasons for that change. “The Declaration is the same kind of document: a memo that announces and, thereby, brings about a change, while also explaining it.”

This is her technique: very short chapters, fifty of them, averaging five or six pages each, written in plain and lucid prose. She frequently pauses to give the reader the Latin or other etymological origins of words and to analyze their precise meanings. When, for example, the colonists at the end of the first sentence of the Declaration say that “they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation,” Allen offers a lengthy discussion of the origins of the word “impel,” which, she says, implies that the colonists were “driven toward their revolution by something like the law of gravity. They go reluctantly.”

But that is not enough. “What is this strong, gravity-like force pushing them on?” Before she can explore this question, however, she says we have to discover “who is being impelled and to what.” The colonists experienced the force of necessity as “one people.” And then Allen launches into a discussion of what it means to be “one people.”

Allen illustrates this detailed textual analysis with the most commonplace images and prosaic metaphors, all designed to make the document accessible to the widest possible readership. In order to explain the meaning of “entitled,” for example, she invokes the notion of a title to a car. “When my neighbor holds title to a sporty little Toyota, which maybe I covet, I nonetheless respect the fact that it is his and accommodate myself to his ownership.” So in the same way, she says, the Americans were entitled to their equal station in the world.

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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian/Monticello
Thomas Jefferson; painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1805

“Declaring reasons, presenting facts, declaring that a new state of affairs obtains, and making pledges: these are familiar actions,” she writes, “just like what brides and grooms do when they marry.” This simple metaphor, she says, can help us understand the Declaration. Just as when a couple says “I do,” the words of the Declaration make a new reality. Because the words of the document declare that a new confederation of states now exists and that the members pledge to one another their lives, property, and honor, the text “sounds something like a wedding.”

But actually, she says, the Declaration bears an even closer resemblance to a divorce. “We can confirm that the Declaration speaks in the dispiriting tones of divorce by comparing it to the high-profile breakup of Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne, and Princess Diana in 1996.” Like their divorce document, the Declaration declares that the marriage between Britain and its colonies is dissolved. But then, after confirming that divorce, the colonists “also declare that they are remarrying, now to one another.”

To explain what “endow” means in the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” Allen says the word comes from the Latin doto, which describes giving a dowry to a bride about to be married. Allen then goes on to explain what a dowry meant in early modern England—money or property given to the bride in order to ensure that there was a permanent basis for her support. Since no one could take the wife’s property away, no one, says Allen, can take away our endowed property of inalienable rights. With these kinds of commonplace images Allen proceeds through the words and sentences of the Declaration, trying in simple and clear language to unlock the meaning of the document for the most naive of readers.

Finally, after all this sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word examination of the Declaration, Allen arrives at the meaning of equality she has been pointing to all along. All the five facets of equality add up to “political equality,” by which Allen means our gaining equal access to the instruments of government and our possessing an equal ability to organize them. “Nature,” she writes, “has given us an instinct for politics,” and this is “evidence that nature is organized to provide for our flourishing.” We humans have been “furnished with our powers of mind, spirit, and body in order that we may live, be free, and pursue happiness by means of politics.” All our conversations point to the “potluck” creation of the “collective intelligence” that is best expressed in the institutions of government. Allen wants everyone to feel equal so that they will be empowered to engage in politics. The Declaration, she says, more than once, is “a model of political judgment.” In the end “the Declaration teaches people how to do the very thing that it argues that everyone has the capacity to do, namely make political judgments.”

But political equality that leads to more political engagement may not be the kind of equality that we most need right now. As Pierre Rosanvallon, the director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has pointed out in his recent fascinating book, The Society of Equals, “democracy is manifesting its vitality as a regime even as it withers as a social form.”* On both sides of the Atlantic the people as a political entity are overwhelming the people as a social body. “Political citizenship has progressed, while social citizenship has regressed.” In other words, according to Rosanvallon, we need to put government and our too vehement politics aside for the time being and focus instead on resuscitating a society that is failing badly.

Jefferson and many other revolutionaries in 1776 always put society ahead of government. They would never have agreed with Allen’s assertion that “human equality requires that each of us have access to the single most important tool available for securing our happiness: government.” Government for Jefferson, as it was for other liberals like Thomas Paine, was merely a necessary evil.

It was society that Jefferson and Paine always celebrated. Society, wrote Paine in the opening paragraph of Common Sense, “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections.” Government acted only “negatively by restraining our vices.” To Jefferson and Paine government was a plunderer. All the evils in society—inequalities, privileges, social distinctions, monopolies, even excessive wealth and property—came from connections to government. This is why Jefferson and his followers believed that the government that governed least was best.

The confidence that Jefferson and the other revolutionaries had in society alone flowed from their assumption that every person, regardless of rank or education, had a natural social or moral instinct that tied them by affection to their fellow human beings. This social and moral sense, this natural feeling of affability and benevolence, became for the revolutionaries a modern substitute for the austere and martial conception of virtue that had sustained the ancient republics. Classical virtue had flowed from the citizen’s participation in politics. But modern eighteenth-century virtue flowed from the citizen’s participation in society, not government.

Even someone as different from Jefferson and Paine as James Wilson believed that government was merely the scaffolding of society, and “if society could be built and kept entire without government, the scaffolding might be thrown down, without the least inconvenience or cause of regret.” This confidence in social adhesives alone is what led the most extreme of Anglo-American radicals, like William Godwin, to contemplate anarchism, that is, a society without any government at all.

Although Allen has a brief chapter on the “moral sense,” and suggests its connection to equality, she never develops its social implications. For Allen the moral sense is all about the equal engagement of every person in politics. By contrast, the revolutionaries believed that it was all about each person’s engagement in the society apart from politics and government.

Jefferson’s notion of equality in fact went well beyond the political equality that Allen emphasizes. Jefferson believed that everyone, including the humblest of black slaves, had this moral sense, this capacity to feel affection toward his or her fellow human beings. This belief, stronger in Jefferson than in any other of the revolutionaries, is what has made him, a slaveholding aristocrat, the perennial spokesman for America’s democracy. Even as they differ on the meaning of equality, however, both Jefferson and Allen agree on one central point. Democracy requires that at some basic level everyone in a society must be considered the same.

  1. *

    Pierre Rosanvallon, The Society of Equals, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 1; reviewed in these pages by Paul Starr, May 22, 2014. 

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