“Danielle Allen lays bare the Declaration’s history and significance, returning it to its true and rightful owners—you and me.”—Junot Díaz
In just 1,337 words, the Declaration of Independence altered the course of history. Written in 1776, it is the most profound document in the history of government since the Magna Carta, signed nearly 800 years ago in 1215. Yet despite its paramount importance, the Declaration, curiously, is rarely read from start to finish—much less understood.
Troubled by the fact that so few Americans actually know what it says, Danielle Allen, a political philosopher renowned for her work on justice and citizenship, set out to explore the arguments of the Declaration, reading it with both adult night students and University of Chicago undergraduates. Keenly aware that the Declaration is riddled with contradictions—liberating some while subjugating slaves and Native Americans—Allen and her students nonetheless came to see that the Declaration makes a coherent and riveting argument about equality. They found not a historical text that required memorization, but an animating force that could and did transform the course of their everyday lives.In an "uncommonly elegant, incisive, and often poetic primer on America’s cardinal text," Our Declaration now brings these insights to the general reader, illuminating the "three great themes of the Declaration: equality, liberty, and the abiding power of language" (David M. Kennedy). Vividly evoking the colonial world between 1774 and 1777, Allen describes the challenges faced by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—the "Committee of Five" who had to write a document that reflected the aspirations of a restive population and forge an unprecedented social contract. Although the focus is usually on Jefferson, Allen restores credit not only to John Adams and Richard Henry Lee but also to clerk Timothy Matlack and printer Mary Katherine Goddard.Allen also restores the astonishing text of the Declaration itself. Its list of self-evident truths does not end, as so many think, with our individual right to the "pursuit of happiness" but with the collective right of the people to reform government so that it will "effect their Safety and Happiness." The sentence laying out the self-evident truths leads us from the individual to the community—from our individual rights to what we can achieve only together, as a community constituted by bonds of equality. Challenging so much of our conventional political wisdom, Our Declaration boldly makes the case that we cannot have freedom as individuals without equality among us as a people.With its cogent analysis and passionate advocacy, Our Declaration thrillingly affirms the continuing relevance of America’s founding text, ultimately revealing what democracy actually means and what it asks of us.
“Our Declaration is a primer on all that we have been missing… Not just an invaluable civics lesson but also a poignant personal memoir… 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.”
Joseph J. Ellis
“Our Declaration is an artful, often elegiac meditation on the meaning of Jefferson's famous words for our time. Allen brings the analytical skills of a philosopher, the voice of a gifted memorialist, and the spirit of a soulful humanist to the task at hand, and manages to do something quite rare, find new meaning in Jefferson’s understanding of equality.”
“This wise and rich book is what we need in these troubled times—a robust and persuasive defense of equality and liberty grounded in our national scripture. Danielle Allen is a towering political philosopher of the democratic art of being and a force for good!”
“Danielle Allen celebrates the Declaration of Independence by reading it closely—line by line, comma by comma—and invites her fellow citizens to do the same. The result is a richly rewarding book that demonstrates the pleasures of slow reading, the power of words to shape events, and the importance of equality to democratic life.”
Ann Marie Lipinski
“Danielle Allen's poignant and personal reflection on the Declaration of Independence is a rare and singular work…[S]he has written a book that throws open a door to a large circle of readers: anyone with a stake in democracy. Her observations about the importance of language in building and sustaining a republic are especially resonant and worthy of the towering rhetoric of the Declaration. Our Declaration holds the promise of both discovery and rediscovery whether you've never read the Declaration or have memorized each of its 1,337 words.”
A slow and careful reading of America's founding document.The Declaration of Independence, itself the product of many hands, addressed everybody: "a candid world" the signers presumed capable of judging the facts and approving the reasons that impelled the colonies to take the fateful step of separating from Britain. Allen (Social Science/Institute for Advanced Study; Why Plato Wrote, 2010, etc.) insists we take the signatories at their word and that we need not be steeped in history to comprehend a text that works simultaneously as an eloquent statement of philosophical principle and as a utilitarian memorandum. For more than a decade, the author has taught the Declaration to elite students and to adults in night school, and she maintains that "a willing mind and life experience" are sufficient for understanding the document. As if conducting a friendly conversation, sentence by sentence, she takes readers through all the text's words, and she proves a patient, informed and friendly guide. By subordinating history—although she admits some history is required for a fuller understanding of the colonists' list of grievances against King George III—and focusing on the philosophical, she easily demonstrates her thesis: that liberty and equality, "the twinned foundations of democracy," are not necessarily in tension. Rather, she argues, they are inextricably linked, and if anything, "equality has precedence over freedom." Readers prepared to quarrel with Allen's judgment will need first to acknowledge her careful definition of the ideal of equality (scrupulously extracted from the Declaration's own words) and to commit to a similarly rigorous textual analysis. Her dedication to slow reading forces us to pause and reconsider words we thought we knew—"self-evident," "created equal"—words that eerily resonate—"swarms of officers"—and words whose full definitions continue to unfold more than 200 years after the nation's birth.At once simple, sharp and deftly executed.
Allen (Sch. of Social Science, Inst. for Advanced Study; coeditor, Education, Justice, and Democracy) parses the Declaration of Independence, finding meaning in every phrase, every word, even every punctuation mark. Her book is a thought-provoking extended essay that claims the equality and freedom described therein (as contrasted with simple "liberty" or "independence") as the birthright of every American. Allen, a biracial woman herself, recognizes the contradictions surrounding the Declaration, which was written, after all, in the 18th century by white men, many of whom owned slaves. Yet despite these "shadows" on the document, she sees it as a timeless argument for equality, freedom, and the right to self-government. She even claims that it is a memo written to the world and for posterity—a message that all people are equal, that society should promote the happiness of its citizens, and that the people have the right, even the duty, to overturn tyrannies. VERDICT Most of us can quote the opening line or two of the Declaration; after reading Allen's book you will know much of it by heart and understand its enduring argument for equality and freedom. [See Prepub Alert, 12/16/13.]—Duncan Stewart, Univ. of Iowa Libs., Iowa City
Danielle Allen, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, is a political philosopher widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America. She lives in Princeton with her husband and two children.