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.
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.