Notions of equality in our nation's founding document
Danielle Allen's 2014 book, "Our Declaration," is a close study of the United States Declaration of Independence. Allen carefully recounts the history of the Declaration and the many players involved in its genesis. But the key concepts of equality and freedom are at the heart of her work. Allen argues that these two ideas, which are often placed in opposition to each other in modern political discourse, are actually tightly bound in the Declaration, with the latter dependent on the former.
A few chapters into this book, I realized that Allen's approach to her topic was unique. The full text of the Declaration is featured early on and many chapters are spent focusing on single sentences (or even phrases) of the text. The chapters are quite short and the Declaration is quoted frequently, in some cases even repetitively. The writing is conversational and Allen poses straightforward questions throughout, leading the reader through possible arguments and rebuttals. The story of her own growing understanding of the Declaration is compelling and heartfelt.
The opening chapters of the book detail the authorship of the Declaration. While usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson (a perception he encouraged to the point of having it engraved on his tombstone), the Declaration is actually a fascinating example of what Allen calls "democratic writing." Allen shares excerpts of letters between John Adams and Richard Lee that clearly resemble the language of the eventual Declaration. Adams's pamphlet Thoughts on Government formalized many of those ideas. Another pamphlet, this one by Jefferson, called A Summary View of the Rights of British America, led to Jefferson's inclusion on the committee responsible for the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. In excerpts from these texts, as well as others such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights (penned by George Mason), we can clearly see the foundations of the eventual Declaration, sometimes down to the exact eventual phrasing. We learn about the committee of five eventually tasked with writing the Declaration and its subsequent editing by the Continental Congress. Allen even explains the editorial role of the numerous printers responsible for the various versions of the Declaration that were signed and circulated.
Allen doesn't shrink from the the problematic beliefs of many of the colonists, particularly those who owned slaves. She describes the Declaration as a loose script of sorts, one in which the colonists honestly laid out their shared beliefs and hopes (as well as some of their shortcomings). She addresses the hypocrisy we now perceive in slaveholders making demands rooted in equality and freedom when she writes:
When we observe a person who says one thing and does another, we might be looking at a liar, but we might also be looking at a person who hasn't yet been able to turn her ideas into a script that is concrete enough to guide her actions... Ideas don't change actions on their own. Our desires matter too. This, finally, is why a shadow of tragedy trails our Declaration.
In deemphasizing the role of Jefferson (a slaveholder) in the writing of the Declaration, she celebrates the contributions of those Founding Fathers who held more modern views on race.
I enjoyed learning about the lengthy collaborative process that finally led to the finished Declaration (anyone who has tried to write anything as part of a group can sympathize with the colonists). But Allen's purpose in describing the complex work of building the Declaration is to support her later analysis of the text, particularly what it says about the colonists' views on equality. She considers several perspectives on equality and how each is supported by the text of the Declaration. For example, there is evidence that the colonists believed that all people were equal in their ability to make judgments for themselves about their own happiness. Also, in an era of long communication delays and limited centralization of knowledge, the list of grievances in the Declaration represents a collaborative and egalitarian collection of perspectives from a range of colonists from all walks of life. Finally, as they defended their demands for equality on the world stage, the colonists cited the failure of King George to engage with them in any dialogue over their concerns. In doing so, the underscored the idea that equality cannot exist without a mutual desire for understanding and a reciprocal approach to addressing grievances when one's rights are being infringed upon.
Allen pays special attention to the famous second sentence of the Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
In her interpretation, the colonists are saying that equality is a prerequisite to the design and maintenance of a government that is necessary to secure the rights (and freedoms) that we are all equally entitled to within a society. Equality is actually a precondition for freedom.
This is an excellent time for a careful reading of the Declaration of Independence. The violent insurrection on January 6th, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol was a disturbing display of the growing contempt that Americans have for one another. As I read this book, I wondered at how the characteristics of equality Allen draws from the Declaration have decayed recently. Americans no longer seem capable of gathering and considering a variety of ideas and perspectives judiciously. We are also unable to expect redress when we feel wronged or mutual respect when in disagreement. Perhaps most importantly, many Americans don't feel that the hard work of democracy is worth it (a disturbingly small number of millennials believe that living in a democracy is "essential").
I've been fascinated by the iconography of the far-right in recent years (I've written a bit about it here and here). The collection of Gadsden flags, Betsy Ross flags, and Confederate battle flags among the Trump paraphernalia at the Capitol riot demonstrate perceived grievance and intolerance, revealing a view of our nation's founding story that diverges from the one that Allen tells. The Confederate symbols in particular, shamefully paraded through the Capitol building, represent a time when whole populations of Americans were unequal under the law. The system of chattel slavery in the United States led to civil war, seeming to highlight Allen's point that without equality, there is no hope for an enduring democratic government. Even as equality has been expanded since 1861, the inequalities that persist (racial and economic in particular), continue to tear at the edges of our society.
One could argue that a serious approach to resuscitating our democracy must be rooted in bolstering and celebrating the ideal of equality that is the centerpiece of our nation's founding story. Danielle Allen herself recently served as a chairperson of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. That commission's report on the health of democracy in the United States, together with prescriptions, was released in June 2020. Some of the report's recommendations would expand democratic participation by changing the way we vote (ranked choice voting, multimember districts, elections on Veterans Day to name a few). Reforms like this have the potential to nudge us closer to the sort of equality made vivid by the Founding Fathers in our radically aspirational Declaration- and perhaps to help us preserve their experiment a little longer.
To listen to a recent interview with Danielle Allen about her work, click here.