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Finding empowerment in the words of our founding fathers

July 3, 2014 at 8:30 PM EDT
We have lost something in our reading of the Declaration of Independence. This is the argument of Danielle Allen’s new book, “Our Declaration,” where she explores the document through a careful look at the words themselves. Jeffrey Brown talks to Allen about her findings, and why the Declaration is actually a coherent argument of equality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a close reading of the document at the heart of tomorrow’s holiday.

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: We all celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but how many of us actually read it? And to what extent, over time, has it been in some ways misread?

A new book, “Our Declaration,” explores the document through a careful look at the words themselves.

Author Danielle Allen is a political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a scholar of democracy and citizenship from ancient Athens to our own time. And for the record, she’s a member of the board of directors of the Mellon Foundation, a NewsHour underwriter.

And welcome to you.

DANIELLE ALLEN, Author, “Our Declaration”: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You make this part a personal story. It stems from teaching the Declaration at an elite university by day and to workers or people without jobs or without much education, perhaps, at night.

DANIELLE ALLEN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What were you exploring?

DANIELLE ALLEN: Well, for 10 years, in Chicago, I did teach a course for low-income adults.

And one of the key efforts or goals was to give them great material to read, to expand their education, their own capacities. But they were busy people, hardworking people. And so I found myself gravitating towards the Declaration for the pragmatic reason that it’s short.

And my experience with that was, I was really surprised. None of my students in that night class context had ever read the Declaration. And it really seemed that this was because they didn’t think of it as theirs, didn’t think of it as belonging to them, and nobody had ever tried to make that case to them. Incredibly empowering experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, as you write in the book, it develops your own thinking about the Declaration and the thesis that comes through is that we have lost something in our reading of it, that we have — we’re focusing on a tension between two very key words, right, liberty and equality.

DANIELLE ALLEN: That’s right. Exactly.

Yes, we tend to think of liberty and equality as in sort of a conflict with each other, that if you pursue equality, it requires putting restraints on liberty. But, actually, equality is the foundation of liberty. We need that egalitarian bond among citizens to build the political institutions that we all use collectively to secure our safety and happiness and protect our liberty.

So that was one of the things my students and I learned. And they were all people who were stuck in their lives in various ways. And that was what was really so empowering about the text, the way it calls out to people to consider their circumstances, you know, when in the course of human events, and then to ask themselves the question how to set their course in a better direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And even with all the contradictions that — of the time…


JEFFREY BROWN: … slavery, you know, being the most notable one, of this call for equality, this call for liberty, this call for the pursuit of happiness.

DANIELLE ALLEN: That’s right.

And that’s what my students really gave me. I think the text had been sort of not given to them, not shared with them partly because there is this idea that since so many of the founders were slave owners, slaveholders, there’s just — there’s sort of a falsehood, there’s a lie in the Declaration.

But when I read it with these students who were trying so desperately to change their lives and discovered how empowering it was for them to understand their political agency, their ownership claim to our political institutions, I realized it does have a coherent philosophical argument about equality which is worth investigating again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are also just making a call for very close reading.

DANIELLE ALLEN: That’s right. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one example — and we have a graphic I want to show, because it kind of goes to your thesis here — is an actual question of typography, in a very famous line, whether what is often seen as a period, we have it here, is actually a comma.

DANIELLE ALLEN: Right. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, explain why that matters.

DANIELLE ALLEN: Oh, it’s so important.

That second sentence of the Declaration is probably the most important sentence in the most important document in American history. It’s an incredibly long sentence. It’s a mouthful. We all know the beginning by heart, right? “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

But that’s then followed by five clauses, each which starts with that, “that all men are created equal, that they’re 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, and that whenever government is destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish them and institute new government in such form and according to such principles as seems to them most likely to affect their safety and happiness.”

JEFFREY BROWN: You did that well.

DANIELLE ALLEN: Long sentence.


DANIELLE ALLEN: At this point, it’s sort of burned into my heart, I think.

But you have got to make that whole circuit from individual rights to what we do collectively, and that period after pursuit of happiness breaks up the arc of the argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so, if it’s a comma, it means that the original idea was to carry through.

DANIELLE ALLEN: That’s right. Absolutely.

And all the manuscripts punctuate with semicolons after each of those clauses, so that it’s clear that it goes all the way through to the end. And that’s also true of the manuscript that was written out by Charles Thomson, secretary for Congress, in the official minute book of Congress, the corrected record, it’s called.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the extent this is an argument for the power of words and the power of understanding of language, you have done this from, as I said, ancient Athens to the study — you come to it from the study of classics, right?

DANIELLE ALLEN: That’s right. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Philosophy, history.


JEFFREY BROWN: How does that apply, that study apply to our own time?

DANIELLE ALLEN: Well, that’s one of the sort of jokes, I think, is that people have been working on ancient Greek texts for centuries, and we have these sort of special skills called paleography and textual criticism, where you really dig into all the different versions of a text to try to figure out what the original was and then what versions flowed from it.

And I have had all that training as a classicist working on ancient Greece, and never thought I would end up using it in our context, but actually we do have these mysteries about our own texts for which those skills are relevant. So, my classicist training has come over and been useful for thinking about U.S. founding.

JEFFREY BROWN: How has the — what’s the advice on the Fourth to the layperson?


JEFFREY BROWN: I’m thinking about the students you were teaching in those night classes.


JEFFREY BROWN: What does it suggest that we either do in terms of reading or how we read?

DANIELLE ALLEN: So I think there are two pieces of advice I would want to offer.

One of really just go ahead and read the whole thing. It’s only 1,337 words, which is, you know, two op-eds at most, so read the whole thing because it does make a coherent argument. But I think actually, in a funny way, the beset way of seeing that argument is by starting at the end.

Start with that resolution, when they unanimously declare that they’re free and independent states with the right to make treatises and alliances and so forth, because at the end of the day, the point of the document is a decision. It’s a decision to declare independence, but then to have to justify that decision.

So, everything that’s come before is that justification. And when one starts at the end that way, what one really gets is this beautiful example of the standard that we should all use whenever we make a decision and then need to explain the justification for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Start at the end and then go back and you learn how to build an argument.

DANIELLE ALLEN: Start at the end. Exactly. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: As well as, in this case, build a country.



The book is “Our Declaration.” Danielle Allen, thank you so much.

DANIELLE ALLEN: My pleasure. Thank you.