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


Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, Society of American Historians
“A tour de force. . . . No one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like this one.”—Gordon Wood, New York Review of Books
Featured on the front page of the New York Times, Our Declaration is already regarded as a seminal work that reinterprets the promise of American democracy through our founding text. Combining a personal account of teaching the Declaration with a...

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

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Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, Society of American Historians
“A tour de force. . . . No one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like this one.”—Gordon Wood, New York Review of Books
Featured on the front page of the New York Times, Our Declaration is already regarded as a seminal work that reinterprets the promise of American democracy through our founding text. Combining a personal account of teaching the Declaration with a vivid evocation of the colonial world between 1774 and 1777, Allen, a political philosopher renowned for her work on justice and citizenship reveals our nation’s founding text to be an animating force that not only changed the world more than two-hundred years ago, but also still can. Challenging conventional wisdom, she boldly makes the case that the Declaration is a document as much about political equality as about individual liberty. Beautifully illustrated throughout, Our Declaration is an “uncommonly elegant, incisive, and often poetic primer on America’s cardinal text” (David M. Kennedy).

Shortlisted for the 2015 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
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.
Thane Rosenbaum - The Washington Post
“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.”
Gordon S. Wood - New York Review of Books
“The book is a tour de force of close textual analysis.”
Steven B. Smith - New York Times Book Review
“Our Declaration sets forth a bold thesis… Allen’s passion for each of the Declaration’s 1,337 words is admirable.”
Sarah J. Purcell - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“An astounding new book that should reinvigorate public understanding of the founding document of the United States… Reading Ms. Allen makes reading the Declaration meaningful and enjoyable—a powerful enough lesson it is't own right.”
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.”
Cornel West
“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!”
Michael Sandel
“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.”
Library Journal
★ 03/15/2014
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871406903
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 6/23/2014
  • Pages: 315
  • Sales rank: 185,670
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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