Our Declaration is an unusual book in many ways. The author, Danielle Allen, an African American woman, insists that the Declaration of Independence is a bold statement about equality despite its failure to address the fact that slavery was a critical feature of the American economy or the subservient status of women. The European colonists considered Native Americans “merciless Indian savages” to use the Declaration’s own words. Allen’s book is a close reading of the text and seeks to find its meaning there with limited reference to historical context.
Allen sees the Declaration as a profound example of “democratic writing.” The document began with a directive from the Continental Congress to a committee to set forth the reasons why the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft, which the committee then edited. The committee’s draft was presented to the Congress, which went through it line by line so that the final text gave unanimous expression to the perspective of a group whose members, despite favoring independence, differed on many other issues, most particularly the issue of slavery. Allen notes that there are several published versions that differ in some details (such as punctuation). At least one of these differences gives rise to divergent meanings. Yet the document is remarkable for its eloquence, clarity, and logical structure.
This method of writing has particular relevance to the independent political movement, which brings together people from many different backgrounds with many different points of view in pursuit of a common goal – the structural reform of our electoral system which, like the dominion of Great Britain over the 13 American colonies, is less and less representative of the American people.
Allen focuses on what she calls “political equality,” the belief that each human being has the right and the responsibility to contribute to the governing process as best he or she can. No one person is more privileged or has more rights in this regard. This notion of equality must reckon with the obvious inequalities in America, then and now. What does this notion mean in a country in which racial, educational, and economic inequality are so pronounced? I look forward to our discussion with Allen on this point. We might ask her how this notion of equality squares with today’s hyper-partisanship and the significant disparities in the access people have to the process of choosing our representatives and impacting on how they govern.