Book review

Reading of the Declaration of Independence runs against the grain of our culture

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When is the last time you read the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence all the way through? Once you crack Da­nielle Al­len’s ex­cel­lent “Our Dec­la­ra­tion: A Read­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence in De­fense of Equal­ity,” you will want to read it again and not just on Inde­pen­dence Day.

By Danielle Allen
Liveright ($27.95)

Ms. Al­len, a po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­pher at the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study in Prince­ton, N.J., leads read­ers through the Dec­la­ra­tion sen­tence by sen­tence, some­times word by word, in this as­tound­ing new book that should re­in­vig­o­rate pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of the found­ing doc­u­ment of the United States.

Ms. Al­len presents the act of read­ing the Dec­la­ra­tion as a way for any­one to be­gin to make a claim on demo­cratic cit­i­zen­ship. She wants to “draw dif­fer­ent cir­cles of read­ers to­gether: the so­phis­ti­cate and the nov­ice; the fre­quent and the oc­ca­sional reader; the his­tory buff and the self-help seeker; the lover of de­moc­racy at home or abroad.”

She suc­ceeds in mak­ing the Dec­la­ra­tion in­ter­est­ing on all those lev­els and at demon­strat­ing its mean­ing, not only for the Found­ing Fathers in the 18th cen­tury, but for any­one in our own day also.

Ms. Al­len’s book emerged from her teach­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion si­mul­ta­ne­ously to un­der­grad­u­ates at the Univer­sity of Chi­cago and to re­turn­ing adults strug­gling to fin­ish col­lege at night.

Lucid and en­gag­ing, Ms. Al­len mixes phi­los­o­phy with his­tory and com­mon sense in her ap­proach to read­ing the doc­u­ment. Along the way she muses on the demo­cratic po­ten­tial of such mun­dane ac­tiv­i­ties as writ­ing memos, at­tend­ing meet­ings and cook­ing pot­luck meals. She pays at­ten­tion to the cir­cum­stances of draft­ing the Dec­la­ra­tion, care­fully an­a­lyz­ing not only Tho­mas Jef­fer­son but also ev­ery mem­ber of the Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress who con­trib­uted to it, in­clud­ing the print­ers who com­posed var­i­ous orig­i­nal cop­ies.

Ms. Al­len’s clear writ­ing has the power to make in­ter­est­ing even deep con­sid­er­ation of punc­tu­a­tion marks and how they helped to shade the mean­ings of con­cepts like “the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness.” Ms. Al­len helps read­ers un­der­stand the im­ag­ery, au­di­ence, log­i­cal struc­ture and rhythm of the Dec­la­ra­tion as she ex­plains how the ac­tual words of the doc­u­ment con­sti­tuted ac­tions that cre­ated the na­tion and en­shrined many of its most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal val­ues.

Ms. Al­len also makes a pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment about U.S. de­moc­racy. She sub­mits that po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phers, and in­deed most U.S. pol­i­ti­cians to­day, see the fun­da­men­tal Amer­i­can ide­als of free­dom and equal­ity as con­flict­ing. In­stead, she uses her read­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion to ar­gue that Amer­i­can free­dom and equal­ity rely on one an­other.

Ms. Al­len, who is African-Amer­i­can and the au­thor of sev­eral books on civil rights, be­lieves that the Dec­la­ra­tion fu­els Amer­i­can equal­ity — even though its draft­ers sup­ported slav­ery at the time.

She ar­gues that the Dec­la­ra­tion is a pow­er­ful en­dorse­ment of equal­ity of at least five dif­fer­ent kinds: “free­dom from dom­i­na­tion, equal­ity of the op­por­tu­nity to use the tool of gov­ern­ment, the use of egal­i­tar­ian meth­ods to gen­er­ate col­lec­tive in­tel­li­gence, and an equal­ity of agency achieved through prac­tices of rec­i­proc­ity” plus “equal­ity as co-cre­ation and co-own­er­ship of our shared world.”

Ms. Al­len doesn’t shy from the fact that this en­dorse­ment of equal­ity is out of fash­ion across the cur­rent Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. She states forth­rightly that “the achieve­ment of equal­ity is the sole foun­da­tion upon which we can build last­ing and mean­ing­ful free­dom … [but] since lib­er­tar­i­an­ism cur­rently dom­i­nates our po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tions, this first ar­gu­ment runs against the grain of our con­tem­po­rary cul­ture.”

The book is far from com­bat­ive, how­ever, and even read­ers who find this po­lit­i­cal state­ment of­fen­sive to their way of think­ing will ben­e­fit from grap­pling with the Dec­la­ra­tion as Ms. Al­len ad­vises. She presents this as “a” read­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion, not “the” read­ing, and she em­pow­ers read­ers to think for them­selves, even as she ar­gues for her way of see­ing things.

Read­ing Ms. Al­len makes read­ing the Dec­la­ra­tion mean­ing­ful and en­joy­able — a pow­er­ful enough les­son in its own right.

Sarah J. Pur­cell is pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Grin­nell Col­lege in Iowa.

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