In this algorithmic age of quants, wonks and hackers, where statistics and big data take all the credit for explaining the world, Danielle Allen, a political philosopher at the Institute of Advanced Studies, rolls back the numbers to the mere 1,337 words written by our founding fathers and reminds us that words matter, too.
In “Our Declaration,” she applies a geek’s gaze to America’s core text and shows how our founding fathers declared their independence from England in the most spare and carefully chosen of words. Although briefly stated, the declaration brims with large ideas crafted by deliberate and principled men who took on what appeared to be a lost cause. Having exhausted all other means of trying to reason with the tyrannical King George III, they were left with no choice but to break their bond with England.
One idea that is central to Allen’s book is the role of equality in the declaration. In the sound-bite-driven, cliche-laden conversations of our present age, equality, as it appears in the declaration, has been neglected and misapplied. The founding fathers had a clear vision for what they expected of democratic governance. And what they extolled, and what Allen trumpets like a good soldier in the Continental Army, was a co-dependent relationship between equality and freedom — neither was more important than the other.
Yet today freedom permeates our public discourse like an obsession, while equality is regarded as a bastard stepchild of the revolutionary age. Everyone purports to know the meaning of freedom; few have any idea how to comprehend equality, much less apply it. Allen points out, however, that only through equality — and how it elevates the dignity of ordinary people — could the colonies have mustered the intellectual and emotional mettle to finally break free from the crown.
This book sets out to debunk the notion that freedom alone is the supreme virtue arising from the declaration. In doing so, it restores equality to the level of importance it once shared with freedom as equal partners in the revolution that gave birth to a nation. And Allen does not fail to address the limits of what equality meant to these founding white-skinned, land-owning fathers.
Most people have never read the Declaration of Independence all the way through. What passes for generally accepted cocktail-party trivia is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the document, that it says something about “all men being created equal,” and that people have the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — whatever that means.
“Our Declaration” is a primer on all we have been missing. First, Jefferson was not the sole author. There were many contributors to this evolving document, including the man who inscribed the words on the parchment and the female publisher of the broadside that brought these fiery words to the people. Each made stylistic changes to the declaration that were not in Jefferson’s original.
Indeed, the Committee of Five — Jefferson and the other authors, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston — proved that sometimes having too many cooks in the kitchen can result in the perfect revolutionary meal. What Jefferson delivered was treated as a most malleable first draft. It was edited down considerably and stripped of the Lord of Monticello’s flowery, hyperventilated language. God was added ; the condemnation of slavery was removed. No one can truly claim authorship of the declaration, which is a good thing, to Allen’s mind, since it represented the important first step in the functioning of a new government committed to democratic ideals.
Even those members of the Continental Congress who were not among the declaration’s collaborative authors nonetheless participated in spirited debates and procedural dealmaking about what should go into the document. In contrast to the fractitiousness and coarsened debate of today’s Congress, our founding fathers created a precedent for political consensus-building at its most elegant and refined.
“The art of democratic writing supports the development of collective intelligence and does not seek credit. It does not know intellectual pride,” Allen writes. “The Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement — such a maddening quantity of group writing — are necessary for justice.”
Allen knows a little about how group learning can enrich the minds of a community. Indeed, “Our Declaration” developed in somewhat the same way that the founding fathers assembled the actual declaration. For years Allen taught the declaration to privileged college students during the day and students with financial and family challenges at night. What better way to experience the majesty of the declaration, and glean its deeper meanings, than to read it closely, surrounded by citizens of varying backgrounds all representing the polity of 21st-century America? Her class was a collective exercise of getting inside the heads of men of the Enlightened 18th century by parsing their precise words. The stakes were far less fraught, to be sure, but in its own way Allen’s dissection of the declaration matched those exhilarating and transformative early sessions of the Continental Congress.
“Our Declaration” is not just an invaluable civics lesson but also a poignant personal memoir. Allen, her family and her students are characters in a post-American Revolution tale. The professor learned the mysteries of the declaration with the aid of her students, seeing in them the very embodiment of what the founding fathers wished to bequeath to future generations of Americans.
With a light touch that does nothing to conceal her civic fervor, Allen is an evangelist for this romantic moment in American history when men of uncommon vision and political deftness stated their case and listed their grievances against the most powerful nation on Earth.
A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
By Danielle Allen
Liveright. 315 pp. $27.95