Book review: ‘Our Declaration,’ a hard look at the Declaration of Independence

Posted Sunday, Jun. 29, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality

by Danielle Allen

Liveright, $27.95

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Some truths in this world, as Jefferson et al. so eloquently proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence, are, flatly, self-evident.

And on the surface it would seem to be plainly obvious — that is, self-evident — to perhaps the casual-reading passer-by that examining the document word by word would be an exercise in boredom only rivaled by the work of, say, an accountant … without the healthy income.

But Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality turned out to be an eye-opening encounter in thinking critically about defense of ideas, writing and the words we choose, and political philosophy.

What we discover is a reaffirmation that the pen (even today in its last days?) is at least as mighty as the sword (“words in action”), and the author’s poignant argument that America’s democracy and freedom rest on equality, as outlined in the Declaration, starting with the 13 states that vowed to share in the burdens of separating from Great Britain — equally.

It was a pledge to one another, Allen writes, of shared sacrifice.

The document, though, Allen argues, was in its core a case for equality. She spells that out in five facets:

• The colonists’ first task was to make the case that the states were separate from yet equal to all the dominions of the world, free of domination by any other nation-state. “They wanted to be equal as powers.”

• “All men are created equal,” that is, each is the best judge of his or her happiness and “therefore participants in the project of political judgment.”

• In its list of grievances against King George III, Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Congress drew from networks of ordinary people. “The ideal of equality here entails finding what each member of the community can contribute to the collective supply of knowledge,” Allen writes.

• Fourth, Allen focuses on the “mutual responsiveness” of the colonists in seeing through the conditions of freedom.

• The last, of course, was in creating a new political order. Each signer of the Declaration pledged to one another their lives and livelihoods, and that of their states. As a result, each had an equal stake.

The book fulfills its promise of reading the Declaration as you’ve never read it before. That makes it tiresome in places. Allen painstakingly examines every sentence and most of the more than 1,300 words. Overkill immediately comes to mind.

It was the same tactic, she said, used to teach the Declaration to night-school students.

It does, though, seem to work in this forum as a learning device, but patience is necessary, as is the temptation to dissect America’s other great “memos,” as Allen aptly describes the Declaration.

Because some of us know how to party, it wasn’t hard for the mind to venture off and use Allen’s tools in language to examine, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (a chapter would be needed simply to define in years “four score and seven years ago”), FDR’s request to declare war on Japan, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.”

A rehash of the history of the document’s authorship — to the chagrin of Jefferson, who penned merely the “first draft” and watched with angst as the Congress became his editor — is always fun. Some will also learn a new term: “democracy writing.”

The work of Allen, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, certainly has a place in imperfect America, most notably as an aide in teaching young students the Declaration of Independence. It’s a useful tool.

But what a thesis this should be for the rest of the world.

If only they could stand equality in access to government and with each other.

Only in America.

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