‘Political philosophers have generated the view that equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other. As a public, we have swallowed this argument whole. We think we are required to choose between freedom and equality. Our choice in recent years has tipped toward freedom. Under the general influence of libertarianism, both parties have abandoned our Declaration; they have scorned our patrimony.” — Danielle Allen, “Our Declaration.”
At just 1,337 words not counting signatures, the Declaration of Independence is one of the shortest significant documents in American history. It’s also one of the most important. But have you read the whole thing?
Danielle Allen, political theorist, Institute for Advanced Study professor, and member of the Pulitzer Prize committee, had not paid much attention to it until 10 years ago when she taught the document to adult students at night school in Chicago. It was then that she realized that like most political philosophers, she had been underestimating the power of the declaration.
“I think there’s a lot that people are missing when they read the declaration,” Allen says. “They tend not to read the whole thing, so they miss the point of its argument. We tend to take it as a part of the history of the Revolution — the moment when independence was declared. But it makes a profound argument for the human capacity for self-government and the idea of equality. The declaration doesn’t get enough credit for philosophical coherence, and consequently we don’t learn, as we might, what it teaches about citizenship and democracy.”
Allen has tried to correct this oversight with her 2014 book, “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.” The book, a line-by-line commentary on the declaration, makes the case that the writers of the declaration said liberty and equality are not in conflict, but are mutually reinforcing.
Allen will speak at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, March 5, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Tickets are $50, $70 for nonmembers. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Allen also appears at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street on Tuesday, March 10, at 6 p.m. in discussion with Melissa Lane on her new book, “The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter.”
Allen grew up arguing about political theory around the dinner table with her political science professor father and her librarian mother. Both worked at the Claremont Colleges system in southern California. A self-described “faculty brat,” Allen has spent most of her life on campuses. She says her act of rebellion was studying classics as an undergraduate at Princeton University, Class of 1993, and as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She earned a second doctorate in government at Harvard in 2001 and began a career at the University of Chicago as an assistant professor. She became dean of the school’s division of humanities in 2004 and moved to the Institute for Advanced Study in 2007. She will depart in July to direct the ethics center at Harvard.
Allen’s background in classics prepared her well to study what the founding fathers were thinking during the Revolutionary period. “My own education is similar to theirs, which is partly what makes the document more accessible to me,” she says.
Allen’s goal in writing “Our Declaration” was to democratize the country’s founding document by making it accessible to average readers. Each chapter of the book averages 1,300 words. The subject matter of the book is also accessible by nature, she says. “Anybody and everybody who can judge human action, which is everybody, can understand this,” she says.
The main thrust of Allen’s argument is that the argument for liberty in the declaration is well understood, but its necessary counterpart, equality, has been overlooked. Allen says there are five facets of equality that the founders were concerned about. First was equality among nations addressed in the first sentence of the declaration. Second is moral equality, asserted in the “all men are created equal” line. Third is social equality. “When two human beings interact with each other, do we have the egalitarian spirit in ordinary interactions, or do some dominate others?” she says. Fourth is political equality, the laws and mechanisms of government that secure equal rights. Last is economic equality.
“Unless you have equality among citizens — equal freedom among them — some will be dominating others. There is no way to get liberty for everybody unless they are committed to equality. Kings are free. Kings have liberty. There are lots of ways for some people to have liberty if you separate it from equality, but if you are concerned with liberty for a whole population, you have to start with the equality concept.”
Another point Allen makes is that the declaration is laying the philosophical foundations not just for a government, but for an entire society, one in which people treat each other as equals.
“At the time the declaration was written the political leaders understood liberty and equality to be mutually reinforcing,” Allen says. “You needed egalitarian bonds. Those egalitarian bonds would be the basis of the collective power that would make it possible for a community to protect itself from external threats. You need that egalitarian bond to be a healthy and strong society. That’s what we have lost over the last 200 years, for a variety of historical reasons. We have come to think liberty and equality are in tension with each other, and as a result we have lost sight of the work we have to do in building that egalitarian community.”
Allen says the way to build a stronger, more equal society is to reinforce those bonds. “There is not a single, one-off policy solution,” she says. “It’s at a very basic level. How does one interact with one’s neighbors? Does one take the time to be friendly and do the work of proving oneself trustworthy to those neighbors? How does one connect with communities at more of a distance? What is the relationship between, for example, Princeton and Trenton?”
Allen has told interviewers that she was raised in a conservative household and was herself a conservative in college and even helped edit the Princeton Tory. She told public radio interviewer Diane Rehm that her political leanings changed the summer after junior year in college, when she worked at the conservative National Review magazine. She says a look behind the scenes at the magazine convinced her the writers were mishandling the evidence and data that was coming out at the time about income inequality in order to tell the story that social mobility was continuing despite widening gaps in income.
Allen now says she admires the work of Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, who has tried to bring more affordable housing to the relatively wealthy township in order to relieve some of the intense affordable housing needs in Trenton.
Beyond that, Allen says equal participation in the political system could be increased by making greater efforts to register voters, particularly among 18-year-olds at the high school level. “People on college campuses get invited to participate all the time in voter registration drives and so forth,” she says. “But plenty of people turning 18 on high school campuses don’t get invited to register. The League of Women Voters has an initiative to pursue high school voter registration, and I think that’s an important thing to do.”
Allen says she is trying to restore the careful reading of the Declaration of Independence to its rightful place in American political thought. There are many reasons why people tend not to read it, she says. The long list of complaints against King George can seem tedious, though she says that part is actually needed. “There is a theory of good government embedded in the proclamations against King George,” she says.
“Another reason is that I think we have lost our culture of careful reading,” she says. “Even though the declaration is only 1,337 words, people infrequently want to take the time to get through its long sentences. Things like that, and the older style of eloquence, is a bit of a barrier to people.”
It’s a barrier Allen hopes to remove.