Reading the Declaration “In Defense of Equality”

My reading for this July 4 weekend is Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence In Defense of Equality, a welcome contribution to our understanding of our founding document by Danielle Allen, a MacArthur genius and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Declaration

With strategies of close reading and recovery of draft work and historical context, Allen argues that within the Declaration, the concepts of liberty and equality are not opposites to be weighed against each other, but, rather, equality is the very condition in which liberty is to be forged and found.

You may have seen the story on P.1 of the New York Times the other day, which is largely about her quibble with the placement of a period. Allen shows persuasively, through comparing draft manuscripts, that the second sentence of the Declaration was not supposed to end with the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Rather, it should continue to form a long but coherent argument:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

When the period after “pursuit of Happiness” becomes a comma, Allen argues, we see a movement from a statement about individual rights, to the means to take to secure such rights, and finally to our collective responsibility to work together through the institutions of government to maintain these rights. On the other hand, to come to a full stop after “the pursuit of happiness,” she argues, is to place undue emphasis on individual rights. As she put it in an interview with Diane Rehm, if you read the period there, “one begins ultimately to take a self-indulgent view of the Declaration, whereas actually it is a powerful argument about what we need to do together.”

Allen finds the concept of equality to be woven throughout the Declaration, beginning with even the first sentence, where the term is first introduced:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

In asserting a “separate and equal station” among the other great powers of the world, Allen argues, the Declaration is claiming not that the new nation has the resources equal to those of England or France or Germany, for example, but that it has equal status to be in conversation with them as nations.

A powerful illustration of how difficult the concept of equality has always been to make real in a nation that admitted slavery from the very beginning, Allen points out the disturbing echo that the phrase “separate and equal” found in the 20th century in the segregationist’s mantle of “separate but equal.” Working through this language with her students, she came to an “eerie recognition that this language that was so powerfully developed to support a liberation had been twisted to support segregation and domination.”

On this July 4, there is much to discover about the Declaration of Independence in this wonderful book. And, as Allen would add, there is still yet more to discover. She invites us all to go to the source documents to study the story of its creation for ourselves–to take up the challenge of working out our own meditations on the relationship of liberty to equality.

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