Danielle Allen

The 1,337 Words

Air Date: April 18, 2015

Allen discusses her reinterpretation of our founding document as a defense of equality.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The brilliant new book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence reinterprets our founding document as a defense of equality.

The author, our guest today, is Danielle Allen, professor of political philosophy at the Center for Advanced Studies and the newly minted Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Our Declaration is a majestic, lyrical reading of what Danielle Allen considers the founding democratic memorandum. She shows us the power of those words, how they were collaboratively revised and sometimes omitted … and why they were backed up with action.

When our conservative-majority Supreme Court – the strict constructionists – often use the original body of our Constitution to say freedom trumps equality, Danielle Allen suggests our other Founding text says quite the opposite.

Her argument: The Declaration of Independence shows there can’t be individual freedom without equality.

So I wonder why the Supreme Court’s reading of the Constitution these days seems increasingly so far removed from Our Declaration … frowning on the notion of equality or equality being synonymous with these other values in our Declaration.

ALLEN: Hmmmm.

HEFFNER: Danielle Allen, it’s a pleasure to have you here today.

ALLEN: Thanks very much for having me, Alex, I’m glad to be here.

HEFFNER: So how do you explain these two original Founding texts seemingly …

ALLEN: MmmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … diametrically opposed in our day and age.

ALLEN: Well, that’s an interesting question. I mean I don’t think the texts themselves are diametrically opposed …

HEFFNER: But the readings?

ALLEN: So … but you have to start, I think, from looking at the text and trying to figure out how they belong together and people often don’t see the Constitutionalism in the Declaration. But, in fact, it’s there. So if you look at the list of grievances, it’s sort of a sketch of a Constitution inside/out.

You’ve got complaints about the Legislative function, complains about the Judicial function, complaints about the Executive function.

So to me then that raises the question of well, if you can read the Declaration and see a picture of constitutionalism and that’s grounded in equality, why is it that we have so much trouble seeing those connections in the Constitution?

HEFFNER: So expound on that. Why do we see that difficulty today? And, and we’re going to get into the weeds of our Declaration …

ALLEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … but I wonder in the reading of our Supreme Court … equality is not synonymous with this idea of liberty.

ALLEN: Well, it’s a …

HEFFNER: How do we get there?

ALLEN: Well, I’m sure … it’s a complicated question. We have, we have a deep legal history and I’m not a Constitutional lawyer so I’m not in a position to articulate all of the ways in which that body of laws changed over time.

The equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment has been critical and it has given us a broad egalitarian ambit for reading the Constitution. But I think to some extent that the Constitution added the Bill of Rights and that is a much more liberty-oriented document than the bulk of the Constitution or then the Declaration of Independence.

So there is in some sense maybe a tension between understanding precisely how to make good on the Bill of Rights and understanding how to make good on the ideal of equality that the equal protection clause gives us access to.

HEFFNER: The Washington Post said recently your book is an invaluable civics lesson. Was that your intention? I know you talk a lot in your book about readers’ responses … contemporary readers responses to the Declaration. Was that your intent with this book?

ALLEN: That’s interesting. I don’t think I ever used the idea or phrase “civics lesson” in my own head, but it was certainly the case that I wanted to re-engage my fellow citizens in a conversation about equality. So, and I do think that the Declaration of Independence is an incredibly rich resource and one that we don’t take seriously enough. So, it’s not so much as a civics lesson, as a desire to pull my fellow citizens into conversation about important matters.

HEFFNER: What are some of the unsung elements of our, our Declaration that Americans don’t quite understand the significance of even …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … 300 years plus later.

ALLEN: Well, I think one of the most important things actually is that one needs a slightly different understanding of how the document was written.

We tend to think Thomas Jefferson was the man who did it all … everything that we think about the Declaration should be in some sense an assessment of Thomas Jefferson himself.

But, in fact, the Declaration emerged out of a committee process. John Adams and Richard Henry Lee, Adams from Massachusetts … Lee from Virginia … were really the two people who made the Declaration happen.

And Adams did more than just work the political machinery to bring out this decision. He also really sketched out the intellectual contents of the Declaration over the course of Fall of ’75 and Spring of 1776, he wrote numerous texts in which he argued that the main point of government was securing with individual and collective happiness.

And that’s the language that we see coming out in that important phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

So, I think an important thing people don’t realize about that phrase, is that there was a debate about whether or not the happiness concept or the property concept was the better one for focusing our attention on the question of what government is for.

And the property concept was really defended by slave holders and used as part of a defense of slavery. And the happiness concept was used by those who actually wanted to push slavery to the side.

So, keeping property out of that opening bit of the Declaration was, in fact, a positive move against slavery.

HEFFNER: You write, in Our Declaration … “Words must be backed up with actions. With rituals, with oaths. And in order to make real change in the world, words must eventually be backed-up with new habits” …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … and you allude to the failure to make inroads against these deep patriarchal conditions …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … of the early Republic. So how, under those circumstances … this is the contrarian in me …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … can we argue that this document, surrounded by inequity …

ALLEN: Mmmmm

HEFFNER: … was an argument and a genuine argument for and on behalf of equality.

ALLEN: Mmmmm. No. Thank you. It’s a great question … it’s the hard issue of the relationship between ideas and material realities. And ideas don’t make things happen on their own. As I write in the book, you have to convert ideas into actions and to habits and to embody practices.

So, then you’ve got the question, what are ideas worth and is it enough just to make an argument? And from my point of view, it is a fundamentally valuable thing because you can’t even begin to re-invent your habits, your, your basic material realities if you don’t have a set of ideals in the first place to orient yourself toward.

So the words of the Declaration are never going to get us on their own to the end of the road. What they do is provide us a standard against which to measure yourself.

And so, yes, it was a standard that even at that time could be used to … for people to measure themselves. People forget the fact that actually efforts to abolish slavery did get underway in the wake of the Declaration.

So, Pennsylvania was the first state to get rid of slavery … it did that just a few years after the Declaration and you had other … you had Quakers actually putting proposals to Congress to try to abolish slavery in, in the entire country.

So after the Declaration is adopted unanimously, you do begin to see efforts to start bringing material realities in relationship to the ideals.

Of course, it’s taken centuries and we’re not there. So that just speaks to how hard it is to make genuine democracy a reality, but nonetheless, you can see the ideas doing their work, too.

HEFFNER: How has the evolution of our reading affected formerly enslaved peoples?

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: And people of color who now embrace American liberty in the form that we have it today. Collectively.

ALLEN: So you can see all … lots of important interventions … Frederick Douglass’ terrific speech was the Fourth of July to me … right … I mean so … and so the … people have been for centuries pointing out the contradictions between the words of the Declaration and our lived realities.

And you can even see it in funny places that we don’t always notice. Like the language used to defend segregation … the idea that we could have separate, but equal facilities, is basically a riff on the opening sentence of the Declaration where the colonists claimed their separate and equal status to nation’s like Britain.

So, we’ve had to wrestle with these hypocrisies and the fact that in some sense the Declaration did give us a twinned birth, a birth of liberation, but also domination and so, I think … the way I think about it is … it’s that all of us, people of color and others, everybody, the challenge of figuring out how do you make democracy real? How do you achieve the thing that’s necessary for human flourishing, but also so constantly undermined by individuals or groups’ efforts secure power for themselves.

HEFFNER: Do you see your mission … I asked you this before, but I’m going to ask in a different way now …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … as providing a blue print for textualism that can advance the identity of our Declaration as a defense of liberty?

ALLEN: So, I think … you’re sort of asking me if I’m a strict Constructionist? If I want to support a strict Constructionist approach …

HEFFNER: But with a different outcome …

ALLEN: … a different outcome. And I, I guess I wouldn’t take it quite in that direction. So I’m a believer in texts … absolutely, and I’m a believer in close reading. And I’m a believer in the idea that close reading should get us closer to, you know, that there are differences between good and bad readings of texts. There are some readings that do a better job of tracking the original argument.

But just to say that you can track the original argument, isn’t to say that you have to adhere to it. I think once you’ve tracked the original argument then it’s our job to argue about whether we agree or disagree with it. And make our own arguments for our own time.

So, for me it’s more a matter of what can we learn from the greatest achievements of previous ages? And then, how can we take those learnings and make something of them for ourselves in our own time.

HEFFNER: And can we connect them to the trail of future learnings.

ALLEN: Absolutely. Exactly. Yes. And I mean it, you know, it’s our job to do our … to make our own best effort. As it’s been the job for every generation.

And, but … you know, again at the end of the day for me I guess there are a couple of fundamental ideas.

You know, democracy, I believe is necessary for human flourishing. Because it’s the only political forum that makes good on the idea that none of us … everybody is in the best position to say for themselves whether they’re doing well or not. Nobody can speak for us on that.

Democracy is the only political form that can make good on that idea. And, in order to build democracy you have to understand both equality and liberty … and that’s just … you know … just fundamental nuts and bolts works. If you want to talk about a civics lesson, I say that’s where the civics lesson is necessary … how do you think about equality, how do you think about liberty?

And every generation has to do that thinking again for itself. And that’s what I’ve sort of tried to help people do …dig in on that thinking.

HEFFNER: One of the things you focus on is the art of democratic writing …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … and I wonder … and I asked you about a civics lesson because that seems to be lacking today …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … is that one of the teachings from this book that we need to get back to our roots of genuine democratic writing?

ALLEN: Ah, yeah, that’s definitely part of the argument … democratic writing and democratic talking …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

ALLEN: … so I’ve written another book called Talking to Strangers and the argument of that book actually is that people often lament the notion that we don’t have a civics lesson or civics education. And I think that’s not true. I think every single time we teach a kid, “Don’t talk to strangers”, that’s their civics lesson. And so, if you do want a genuinely democratic world, you have to reverse that civics lesson, we have to know how to talk to each other. We have to know how to write together, to think together, to wrestle with hard questions together. It’s a conversational art, it’s an art of group writing as in the case of the Declaration where they passed drafts around and they changed it and they hammered on words until they could find phrases that they could all live with.

And so there are lots of phases in the Declaration that are genuinely compromised phrases. It’s not as if every single phrase sort of nails down one view of life and only one view. There are lots of phrases that are capacious, that make it possible for people who disagreed mightily nonetheless to hold on to the same set of political institutions.

HEFFNER: Can you expound for our viewers on those definitions that you think are most vital today … from our Declaration?

ALLEN: Sure … well, I would come back again to the phrase “pursuit of happiness” … right … so, I mean that was a compromise phrase, as I described before … but it’s a compromise phrase that at the end of the day requires all of us to think about how we contribute to that conversation about how our shared institutions help build a framework for us to pursue our happiness within.

And I think it … that phrase puts a lot of responsibility on each of us. To be judging our current circumstances, to be assessing our shared political world and in making suggestion for how that framework could do a better job of making good for all of us on the promise of democracy.

HEFFNER: And how do you think people read “happiness” today?

ALLEN: Well, you know, it, it probably is, I think, a less … what’s the right word …I think people probably read it in a less demanding way than it should be read, so it’s not really a kind of pleasure concept. Right? It’s not really about seeking your own pleasure … happiness is really about well being … achieving a flourishing life and that means certainly having a framework for doing that. That requires economic opportunity, that requires social equality, it requires mobility in our society, all those kinds of things and then on top of that it also means choosing well for oneself, so that one is able to build something out of opportunities that are available to one.

HEFFNER: You spoke of the Committee of Five …

ALLEN: Mmmmm

HEFFNER: … and you do emphasize here that the Declaration was the work of a collaborative process.

ALLEN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … so these other members of the committee … there was Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston …

ALLEN: Right.

HEFFNER: … Roger Sherman … what were their contributions?

ALLEN: Right. Now that’s a great question. So, you have Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Sherman and Livingston (cough) … excuse me … roughly speaking in that order.

So Sherman and Livingston actually years later had even forgotten that they’d served on the Committee … to tell you the truth, which is a good indication of how much they contributed to it.

Adams and Franklin both made some little contribution. So Adams, as I’ve already mentioned by focusing everybody’s attention on “the pursuit of happiness” idea … Adams also made the contribution of adding the, sort of Constitutional theory to the list of grievances. So, it’s really his contribution that leads to the structuring of that list in a way that captures the notion of checks and balances and separation of powers.

Adams and Franklin added language “for God” to the Declaration, so Jefferson didn’t write much religious language into the Declaration at all … so the idea of the Creator came in through Adams and Franklin.

Then you have Congress which was … did all kinds of things … Congress added yet more language for God to the Declaration.

They also cut out … as we talked about before, some of the condemnations of slavery. So, I mean it is a compromised document. There’s no way around that and it’s hard to talk about compromise where … and to celebrate it … where the relevant compromise is about slavery.

Nonetheless I think seeing the fact that even on something … as extreme an issue as that … I mean, you know, I like everybody else, understands slavery to be one of the worse moral wrongs. So in that regard one could see it as sort of defining the outer limits of a political space and they were able to compromise nonetheless, despite that extreme of disagreement. And so I think that provides some interesting context for thinking about whether we ought to be able to compromise in our time, where we don’t have any issue that is as extreme as that on our, our own plates.

HEFFNER: I find it interesting, there was only one member of this Committee from the South …

ALLEN: Right. Exactly. Exactly. I think that’s super important. So … and Adams wanted Jefferson as head of the Committee and in later life he said that one of the reasons he worked hard to get him into the Chairmanship was because he was from Virginia.

Virginia was the richest of the colonies, it was the most populous, so it was … critical to making the revolution work. And Adams was a pragmatist without any question. So he wanted to build alliances that would support stable new institutional structures.

But, yes, it matters that, you know, there was only one Southern voice in the Declaration. And there, there are many voices that do flow through the Declaration.

HEFFNER: I mean was he the only willing party from the South to take that mission?

ALLEN: Oh, no, not at all. I mean Richard Henry Lee, you know, worked really hard on pursuing the Declaration and could also equally well have served on the drafting committee, but he was busy on several other committees at the same time. So, I mean there was ….

HEFFNER: Because that’s the perception that Jefferson, the darling of the Left, as it was then ….

ALLEN: Mmmmmm.

HEFFNER: … the North that, that he was alone … minority of one in the South. But that’s not exactly true.

ALLEN: No … no, no … to the contrary. I mean Virginia was onboard. I think one of the most important things Adams and Lee did was convince the colonies that they needed to start setting up new governments. Right. So by the time the Declaration is adopted, there are already five states that have ratified Constitutions for themselves. And … New Hampshire was first and then Virginia was second. So the Virginians were really driving a process of embracing a right spaceds Democratic political order. I mean theirs was, you know, tilted in an aristocratic direction and that’s definitely true.

But they were absolutely driving the move, the road to independence.

HEFFNER: You also wrote here, regarding democratic writing … “The art of democratic writing demands of its practitioners the aspiration to write to any and all for any and all. It is philanthropic art …

ALLEN: Mmmmmm.

HEFFNER: … it requires affection for humanity.

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: And this is a bullish, optimistic …

ALLEN: Right.

HEFFNER: … take on the Declaration.

ALLEN: Right.

HEFFNER: … now I know you teach the Declaration this way …

ALLEN: Mmmmm

HEFFNER: … and it’s mightily impressive and I’m sure it resonates with throngs of people from all different background. But this is not exactly mainstream …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … if you were to read our Ninth and Tenth grade US history textbooks. So how do we get there?

ALLEN: Hmmmph. Well, I think you’ve got to take seriously a sentence we often overlook which is the one that … introduces the grievances … “That facts be declared to a candid world”. It’s an extraordinary sentence if you stop and think about it.

Because, really, you know, what’s this candid world? As if the world is genuinely sort of full of nothing but reasonable people who will listen to principles and evidence and weigh it carefully and come out, you know, with a judicious answer.

So it’s a powerfully aspirational statement that … you know that “facts be declared to a candid world”. And I think in setting out that kind of aspiration to speak to a candid world, the folks who wrote that, who voted for it … were also accepting a responsibility to help cultivate a candid world.

And so I think, you know, there are sort of small things in the Declaration that really highlighted aspiration, but then the important thing about that aspiration is that it brings a responsibility with it.

The aspiration in itself is not enough. You’ve got to do the work to cash it out.

HEFFNER: And then it was realized to an extent …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: So explore that for us.

ALLEN: So, you mean the candid world part was realized … or …

HEFFNER: Well, I, I mean in terms of your assertion here that in this memo …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … breaking away from the Mother Country …

ALLEN: MmmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … the colonists were ready to fight for their freedom …

ALLEN: Right.

HEFFNER: … and so these words were followed by action and you …

ALLEN: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … really emphasize that.

ALLEN: I’m so …

HEFFNER: And so many people are so quick to cite our Declaration or our Constitution today, but not follow it up with action.

ALLEN: MmmmHmm. Yes. No, I mean that it was a memo whose purpose was to explain an action. So, they have … they say themselves … a sort of long history of efforts to work through institutions, through petitions to the King and that sort of thing to change things, so they … you know, it does articulate a theory of revolution and they were, they were ready for action by the time they wrote it.

Although again, I think the most important thing to see about their readiness for action is how much effort they put into constructive work before they took that step.

So again I come back to the back that, you know, five states had ratified Constitutions before the group of 13 declared independence.

They … you know, Adams and Lee sort of really made the case that they had to be building the world they wanted to move into before it made any sense to overthrow the world they wanted to leave.

HEFFNER: In that sense it was very deliberate.

ALLEN: MmmmHmm.

HEFFNER: So today’s brand of politics, admittedly and I know you’re a political junkie and an American historian and philosopher and lyricist and all these wonderful things … applying the intellectual frameworks here to our current democratic process, I think you would see a dearth of that kind of deliberate mentality and focus.

ALLEN: It feels that way, yes, I would agree. I mean I think you know, it’s notable that Congress has not only its lowest approval ratings ever … but the lowest approval rating of any institution that Gallup has ever measured approval ratings for. So … was it 11% now.

Which is an extraordinary thing and you have to stop and say, something’s really not working when we’ve hit that kind of point. So the question is, well what can we do to have a Congress that actually does the work it’s supposed to do, that is deliberative, is capable of compromise, is capable of resolving issues across partisan divides. I think the answer to that is we, as citizens need to work on maximizing turnout in primaries.

If we got all of us to the primary ballot box, we’d have a lot more moderate politics, I think.

HEFFNER: So, if our Declaration could make the profound statement that it did … and I was just confirming 1,337 …

ALLEN: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … 1,337 ….

ALLEN: Right, exactly …

HEFFNER: The title of our program.

ALLEN: Right. Oh, okay, very good.

HEFFNER: How can we take small steps with deliberate action …

ALLEN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: Maybe fewer words …

ALLEN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … to make points that may not be as profound. But as we tackle some of these important issues like climate change ….

ALLEN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … immigration ….

ALLEN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … we want to declare self-evident truths ….

ALLEN: Mmmm.

HEFFNER: … but we want to do it in a way that’s going to be followed with action. How, how can our declaration be a guide for that?

ALLEN: Well, I think it’s important to start at the end of the Declaration of Independence, actually. Right, the last couple paragraphs of the very end of it is the resolution … you know …”For these reasons we unanimously declare that these are free and independent states.”

So again, I mean …. sort of start with the action … let’s go ahead and figure out what the right policy solutions are, but then let’s make sure that we’re actually justifying them in terms of our founding principles rather than in terms of immediate put a hook in one way or another. Let’s force ourselves to have that conversation about whether or not out policy choices live up to our founding ideals.

HEFFNER: And, since the limits of, of words today are so well known …

ALLEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: What are your aspirations for taking this book on the road, as you will, and sharing stories of readers and listeners of our declaration with folks around the country. What are you most excited to share about the, the present day, contemporary reactions to our Declaration?

ALLEN: MmmHmm. Oh, well thank you. No. I mean I think … you know this book started with a class, with students … with my students in the city of Chicago …and it was a stunning experience for me to read the Declaration with them. They hadn’t read it before and it was an incredibly empowering experience for them.

So at the end of the day that’s really what I’m trying to do … is to convey that amazing classroom experience that my students gave me and to empower others through thinking about the Declaration.

So, I would like to be able to sort of take people’s stories about individuals who read the Declaration, think about it as a model for assessing one’s circumstances and choosing a new past. And then manage to do that in their own lives. So even if it’s at the level of changing a job … I have one friend who read the book who quit, got a new job because she decided that she couldn’t take it any more, she was putting up with too much and for her own flourishing, she had to make that change.

So at the level of personal, as well as social and political, I think the Declaration has real resources for life.

HEFFNER: What was the most surprising reaction to our Declaration from your students in Chicago and in Princeton, New Jersey where you teach now.

ALLEN: Gosh, that’s interesting … the most surprising reaction … hmm … I think the most surprising reaction was that they … you know, I just always thought the list of grievances would be sort of boring and opaque and so forth and I guess my students really got into figuring out what the stories were behind the grievances, understanding them as little dramas or narratives …


ALLEN: I mean they opened that up for me. I don’t I would have seen my way into the grievances without their help and their sort of interest in what had really happened to these people … what sort of texture of complaint and so forth.

HEFFNER: And, we’re running out of time …

ALLEN: Sure.

HEFFNER: …but compared to the way that we express our complaints now …

ALLEN: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … how is that … was it diplomatic?

ALLEN: Right. Were they diplomatic you mean … and yeah, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t quite so far as to say that they were diplomatic … a far amount of hyperbole in their grievances, so they were certainly, you know, able to be rhetoricians and protagonists as well as actually having an analytical case, but I think the, I think the thing that matters most again is I would come back to the fact that underneath the list of complaints there’s the structure of constitutionalism … so that they had a really positive picture of what the world should be and then they were using that positive picture to criticize their existing world.

HEFFNER: Danielle Allen, I hope we can continue this conversation …

ALLEN: Likewise. Thank you … it was a pleasure.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining us today.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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