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”…


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