A copy of The Declaration Of Independence is displayed at the New York Public Library in New York City. The copy, which was written by Thomas Jefferson, will be on display through July 3.

A copy of The Declaration Of Independence is displayed at the New York Public Library in New York City. The copy, which was written by Thomas Jefferson, will be on display through July 3.

We celebrate its adoption on the Fourth of July – yet few of us have actually read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety. Political scientist Danielle Allen is out to change that. Her latest book, “Our Declaration”, makes the case for a new interpretation of the document – as a living, relevant text with an argument for equality at its core. Inspired by her experience teaching the Declaration to her adult night students, the book invites readers to carefully examine the historical document that Allen says holds particular significance today. For this Fourth of July, equality, democracy and a fresh reading of the Declaration of Independence.


  • Danielle Allen Author, "Our Declaration." She is a political philosopher and a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She is known for her work on justice and citizenship in ancient Athens and modern America.

Read A Featured Excerpt

Excerpted from Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen. Copyright © 2014 by Danielle Allen. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Our Declaration


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It was while teaching the Declaration of Independence to a group of adult night students on the south side of Chicago that political theorist Danielle Allen found herself rediscovering the founding document and its meaning. Her new book titled "Our Declaration" takes us through each word of the text, a work many of us had never read.

  • 11:07:25

    MS. DIANE REHMShe says it's as much about equality as it is about freedom. MacArthur Genius Award winner Danielle Allen joins me to talk about her new book, "Our Declaration." And throughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing your comments and questions. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to you, Danielle.

  • 11:08:02

    MS. DANIELLE ALLENGood morning, Diane. It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

  • 11:08:04

    REHMThank you. Tell me what happened while you were teaching that night school class and what it was that brought you to write this book.

  • 11:08:16

    ALLENOh, thanks a lot, Diane. So the class had about 20 students in it, and it was a one-year course in the humanities. The students did philosophy, U.S. history, literature, art history, and thinking and writing course. And over the course of my 10 years teaching in it, I rotated among several of those units. And the goal of the class was always to introduce students to high-quality writing, smart thinking, and to push their own thinking and their writing capacities.

  • 11:08:44

    ALLENAnd the declaration was just the perfect text for doing this. It's short, right? That was an amazing advantage to it. Nobody could complain about the reading. These were very busy people, hardworking, juggling children and childcare and multiple jobs and so forth. And so I really just started for a pragmatic reason. But as I read it with them in the context of history, philosophy, literature, I found it incredibly empowering for them.

  • 11:09:08

    ALLENI was really stunned to learn that none of my students had ever read the Declaration of Independence. It took me a while to get my head around that, the idea that they didn't think of it as belonging to them. And nobody else had ever made the suggestion that the text belonged to them. And so over the course of reading the text closely, that was really the big discovery for all of us, that it was our declaration. It was theirs, it was my students', it was my night students' declaration, and it was directly empowering in their own lives, in their personal experiences -- they thought about their own work trajectories, their own educational trajectories...

  • 11:09:41


  • 11:09:42

    ALLEN...and empowering them as citizens as they realized they had a claim, they had a stake on our political institutions.

  • 11:09:47

    REHMAnd you subtitled the book "A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality."

  • 11:09:58

    ALLENExactly. Thank you. Yes. So we spend so much time talking about the idea of hypocrisy around the declaration that it's got this bold statement, "All men are created equal." But how can we really think that folks who wrote that and signed it believed it when we know that so many of them were slave owners and slave holders and so forth?

  • 11:10:17

    ALLENAnd reading it with my students, really just starting at the beginning and working our way through to the end, I became convinced that there is a coherent philosophical argument about equality in the text. And it's not just in that famous second sentence. It works its way all the way through, and it's so philosophically powerful that it merits our attention and our respect, even if we may disagree with parts of it and want to debate its historical context.

  • 11:10:38

    REHMSo you think that most of us, not just your students, but most of us have not read the declaration?

  • 11:10:50

    ALLENWell, that's my basic experience. I know a lot of people listen to it on NPR every year on the fourth or, you know, there are various other public readings.

  • 11:10:54

    REHMExactly. Sure.

  • 11:10:57

    ALLENBut every time I've asked an audience, how many people have actually read it from start to finish? And it's only, you know, 1,337 words. Every time I ask, I never get, you know, even half the audience to raise their hand. So that tells me that, as a society, we really aren't reading this document at the moment.

  • 11:11:13

    REHMWell, the other aspect of this is that most of us put the emphasis on independence.

  • 11:11:21


  • 11:11:21

    REHMAnd you're putting the emphasis on equality.

  • 11:11:26

    ALLENThat's right. I think one of the fundamental arguments of the declaration is that we build our political institutions together based on equality in order to secure our independence. So our political institutions are among the most valuable instruments that we have for, in fact, achieving liberty. But then the interesting thing is that those institutions have to be based on a foundation of equality if they're going to remain strong. In that regard, equality becomes the foundation for liberty.

  • 11:11:55

    REHMBut was equality necessarily implied at the writing?

  • 11:12:02

    ALLENAbsolutely. And, again, if you just even look at the first sentence, right, you get the idea of equality right in the beginning when they declare their separate and equal station with other nations on Earth. And so that's a claim that, together, building political institutions, they've achieved an equality which brings them independence.

  • 11:12:20

    ALLENIt brings them freedom from domination by France and England and Spain and all the rest of those great powers at the time. And, to me, the interesting thing about that idea is it's not just that they were claiming freedom from domination for their whole collective assembly of now states. They were claiming that for individual citizens as well, that as we get our freedom through participating in this shared endeavor -- and it's so -- so, again, our freedom depends on the egalitarian bond that makes us a community capable of protecting us all simultaneously.

  • 11:12:51

    REHMNow, that same phrase, separate and equal, is used by segregationists to create a very different framework.

  • 11:13:02

    ALLENWell, it's an echo. And so what happened -- we all know the phrase separate but equal, right? And this was one of those, you know, powerful moments in my class when I was teaching the course originally that we all just sort of sat up. And we were reading the text out loud, and we got to separate and equal. And we realized, you know, wow, that echoes.

  • 11:13:20

    ALLENWe know that. Why do we know that? Right. We know it because of all the separate but equal language used to defend segregation. And so then you have this sort of eerie recognition that this language that was powerfully developed to support a liberation had been twisted. That and changed to a but in order to support segregation and domination.

  • 11:13:39

    REHMSo you're trying to help us perhaps re-understand the declaration.

  • 11:13:46

    ALLENThat's right. That's right. My book, I really think of as an invitation, an invitation to everybody to read a document and then work out its argument for yourself. I mean, each of us, I think, has the capacity to work out the argument of the declaration. And in the process of doing that, one will be required, I think, to meditate on the ideal of equality.

  • 11:14:10

    REHMNow, what in your own life would you say brought you to this point?

  • 11:14:17

    ALLENTo the point of writing this book? Or -- you know, it's a lot of different components. I mean, there's no question that I have a love of this country and a love of its political institutions, a love of its founding. That comes from both of my parents and both sides of my family. So, on my father's side, African-American side of my family, my grandfather helped found of the first NAACP chapters in Florida. And on my mother's side, white American family, they were involved in the suffragette movement.

  • 11:14:44

    ALLENAnd my great-grandfather supported my great-grandmother in pursuing that objective. So, I mean, we've been a politically engaged, impassioned family for a long time. And so, as a child, I certainly was introduced to all the founding documents and participated in family arguments about them. But, again, it was, you know, this funny thing of teaching this class that really reconnected me to these documents.

  • 11:15:04

    REHMHmm. Hmm. Your father was part of the Reagan Administration.

  • 11:15:10

    ALLENMm hmm.

  • 11:15:11

    REHMYou were raised both at the knee of a conservative and became one yourself.

  • 11:15:18

    ALLENRight. In my early years -- that's true, yes. I was a conservative in college, so I -- I helped edit a magazine at Princeton called The Princeton Tory which is about as conservative as you can get. And I worked for the National Review after the summer of my junior year in college, and that was really the pivotal turning point.

  • 11:15:36

    REHMWhat happened?

  • 11:15:37

    ALLENSo, I mean, a number of different things. But there were just various issues that I sort of sat in editorial meetings, sort of watching people argue about facts, evidence, how to present different issues, and I wasn't convinced by the outcomes of those conversations. So, with all due respect to my colleagues at the time then at the National Review, you know, I ended up disagreeing with the choices they made.

  • 11:15:56

    ALLENAnd some of the key issues -- one of the biggest ones was that -- those were the early days where some of the income inequality data was coming out. And their focus was on trying to tell a story about how social mobility continued and despite the fact that there were these widening gaps in income. And I wasn't convinced by their handling of the evidence and the data. So, you know, that was a kind of key issue that was a pivotal turning point for me.

  • 11:16:17

    REHMIt's still a key issue.

  • 11:16:19

    ALLENWell, I mean, now everybody recognizes it. Exactly.

  • 11:16:21

    REHMYes, of course.

  • 11:16:21

    ALLENI mean, we've gotten much greater clarity about that, and the issues with social mobility are now evident as well, too. So, I mean, that regard, for me, it's been a sort of 20 years unfolding of an issue that caught my attention in the early '90s.

  • 11:16:34

    REHMSo was there a click in your mind? Or was it a sort of beginning to rethink and then a gradual process?

  • 11:16:45

    ALLENThat's an interesting question. Maybe, you know, sort of 50/50, I'd say, between click and gradual. So, you know, there were -- there are sort of three or four issues where I felt like there was a click that summer for me. Another one had to do with the history of race in America and the fact that I would tell stories about my grandfather in Northern Florida having succeeded as a fisherman until such a point that he did too well, such that then his boat was taken away from him by the sort of white power holders in the small town that he was in.

  • 11:17:19

    ALLENAnd nobody believed me when I told that story. And it wasn't till a lovely man, who himself was from the South -- his father had been a judge who sort of vouched for my story -- that anybody took me seriously. And that was also a kind of wakeup call. But, any rate, so although there were these moments of epiphany at the time, it was certainly many years unfolding as I began to rethink core ideas. And there is a way in which this book does manifest the outcome of that. So, in that regard, it's, you know, 20 years' worth of rethinking.

  • 11:17:49

    REHMSo you've been teaching and writing right along.

  • 11:17:54

    ALLENMm hmm.

  • 11:17:54

    REHMAnd in what you wrote, did you see the manifestation of the change that you were undergoing?

  • 11:18:03

    ALLENSure. Absolutely. I mean, so I love democracy. I've loved democracy for a long time, you know, since I was a kid. I was lucky when I was in college to be taught by a fantastic professor named Josh (sic) Ober who focused on Athenian democracy. And that gave me a different road into thinking about democracy. And so the chance of an alternative opened up my thinking.

  • 11:18:25

    REHMDanielle Allen, her new book is titled, "Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality." Short break, right back.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Here in the studio, my guest is Danielle Allen. She has written a new book. It's titled, "Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality." Here's an email from Richard. He says, "The Declaration of Independence talks about equality of rights. In particular, it opposes special rights or privileges for groups or individuals based on accident at birth."

  • 11:20:47

    REHM"Yet Americans get fuzzy in the head when the word rights is introduced into a debate over policy. I got my rights is the cry of the person seeking special privilege."

  • 11:21:06

    ALLENThanks a lot, that's a great question. So, yes, the Declaration focuses on equality of rights. And it is -- it makes the argument that we have equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that we require a government as our instrument for pursuing those collectively. So in that regard, too, we need equal access to the instrument of government. And that is often how we thought about civil rights is focusing on voting rights and political rights.

  • 11:21:31

    ALLENBut it's also the case that the Declaration makes a strong argument about the nature of the a political system that can protect those rights. And some of the other features that the Declaration shows us the way to relate, for example, to what I call egalitarian approach to building knowledge. In some sense, it's an idea that connects to education. So when they developed the list of grievances, for instance, it wasn't just a matter of experts working in a closed room.

  • 11:22:01

    ALLENThey put ads in all the newspapers, soliciting information from everybody about their stories about the British. And that was a practice -- a procedure for achieving something based on an idea of equality. So it's also built into the Declaration. One has to ask the question and of how one builds a society where we all have the educational capacities, education to contribute in that positive way.

  • 11:22:24

    ALLENSo the point of saying this is simply to say that there's a lot more about equality in the declaration that simply the statement of rights in the second sentence. And I think it's worth looking at all the different pieces of the argument about equality in the Declaration.

  • 11:22:35

    REHMHere's an email from Theresa. She says, "I read the Declaration of Independence this morning. I was struck that one of the complaints about King George III was his making immigration to the colonies and the naturalization of immigrants hard. This is interesting given the current debate about immigration."

  • 11:23:06

    ALLENThat's right. The colonists recognize that immigration was critical to their achievement of prosperity. And so they were extremely frustrated by the king's efforts to limit immigration, which were an effort to keep the colonies dependent on Great Britain, to keep them weak. So they saw immigration as a source of strength.

  • 11:23:24

    REHMShe goes on to say, "Another complaint was that he was making it hard for laws necessary for governing to be passed, also interesting given the current state of the Congress."

  • 11:23:39

    ALLENThe list of grievances is really brilliant and it merits paying more attention to. One of the things I love about them is you'll find in them effectively a constitutional theory. First, you get complaints about the legislative function, then you get complaints about the judicial function, then you get complaints about the executive function. And then at the very end, you get complaints about violations of the law of war.

  • 11:23:59

    ALLENSo you have -- you can turn them inside out really. You can invert them and have a positive story about what a theory of constitutionalism amounts to. And it's worth doing that and holding that up next to the Constitution. That's super interesting.

  • 11:24:11

    REHMIt's so interesting, Danielle, that you talk about the importance of claiming and owning and taking possession of the Declaration. What do you mean?

  • 11:24:23

    ALLENRight. This government is built out of our consent. It's we the people who are its bedrock. And for it to work, we have a responsibility to take ownership of it. And that means participation through and through. So across the board, I think we all need to do a lot more work getting people to turn out for primaries, to turn out for local elections, to turn out for off-year elections. We have a responsibility.

  • 11:24:46

    ALLENAnd it's only by acting on that responsibility that we can make good on the possibility that these institutions can provide a framework in which we can all flourish, all pursue our happiness.

  • 11:24:57

    REHMYou know, at some point, I'm going to ask you to read or recite, which you could probably do, the Declaration. Would you like to do that now?

  • 11:25:10

    ALLENI'd be happy to, sure. I can recite parts of it, I can't probably do the whole thing. So...

  • 11:25:14


  • 11:25:14

    ALLEN...let me go ahead and...

  • 11:25:15

    REHMDo the whole thing which I think is really an important thing for us to do and hear now.

  • 11:25:24

    ALLENThanks for the invitation. The Declaration of Independence. (Reading) In Congress, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

  • 11:26:09

    ALLEN"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are 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, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.

  • 11:26:51

    ALLENPrudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. And accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

  • 11:27:31

    ALLENSuch has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

  • 11:28:02

    ALLENHe has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained. And when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

  • 11:28:32

    ALLENHe has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

  • 11:28:53

    ALLENHe has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise. The State remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

  • 11:29:13

    ALLENHe has endeavored to prevent the population of these States, for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands. He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers. He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

  • 11:29:41

    ALLENHe has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws, giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.

  • 11:30:10

    ALLENFor Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us. For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States. For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world. For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent. For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury. For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.

  • 11:30:33

    ALLENFor abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies. For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.

  • 11:30:56

    ALLENFor suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

  • 11:31:14

    ALLENHe is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

  • 11:31:41

    ALLENHe has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

  • 11:32:17

    ALLENNor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence.

  • 11:32:43

    ALLENThey too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

  • 11:33:02

    ALLENWe, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.

  • 11:33:39

    ALLENAnd that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

  • 11:34:15

    REHMDanielle Allen, she is reading from the Declaration of Independence. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thank you, Danielle.

  • 11:34:28

    ALLENThank you.

  • 11:34:29

    REHMThere is some question about a small but significant, what you (word?) is an error in the official transcript of the document. Tell us about that.

  • 11:34:49

    ALLENSure, thank you. The National Archives transcription published online has a period after pursuit of happiness in the second sentence. In all of the manuscripts, we have eight manuscripts of the Declaration, there is no such thing. So all of the manuscripts treat the list of self-evident truths as consisting of the five that causes that follow it and which end with "their safety and happiness" at the end of a very long sentence.

  • 11:35:21

    ALLENSo we move from individual rights to the use of government as an instrument to secure collectively our safety and happiness. So the question is -- there are a couple questions. Why does the National Archives transcription have a period there? And, you know, what should we make of it? The reason they have a period is because the 1823 William Stone engraving used a period after "pursuit of happiness."

  • 11:35:46

    ALLENAnd that's where they take their transcription from, as I understand it. The first printed version of the Declaration by John Dunlap did put a dash after "pursuit of happiness" but it treated the whole thing as one sentence. That dash, it would appear, based on my research, comes from an effort to render the emphasis marks that Thomas Jefferson used in his manuscripts to indicate where one should take a longer pause or put more emphasis on a word.

  • 11:36:17

    ALLENSo I think it's without question that the men who worked on the Declaration -- Jefferson, but also John Adams and Benjamin Franklin -- wanted to emphasize the idea of pursuit of happiness, but they didn't want to end the sentence there.

  • 11:36:32

    REHMSo where does that leave us? Does it in any way change our understanding, our interpretation of that phrase?

  • 11:36:43

    ALLENI think it's very important. If you don't mind, Diane, I just would like to go ahead and read that sentence again.

  • 11:36:48


  • 11:36:49

    ALLENRead the whole thing...

  • 11:36:49


  • 11:36:49

    ALLEN...because I think when people hear it, they'll realize that they've usually stopped one-third of the way through.

  • 11:36:54


  • 11:36:54

    ALLENSo I'll just go ahead and read it again. (Reading) We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are 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, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.

  • 11:37:31

    REHMWe will talk more about that when we come back.

  • 11:39:59

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, you've missed a wonderful reading of the Declaration of Independence by Danielle Allen. She's the author of a new book titled "Our Declaration." She is a political theorist, professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. She was a 2002 MacArthur fellow. Let's go back to that period, that dash, or whatever you believe it was or is and how you believe it changes our understanding.

  • 11:40:48

    ALLENThanks, Diane. So the second sentence of the declaration is very long. And the reason it's very long is because it makes an argument. And that argument is first an argument about individual rights, the fact that we all have them. Then it makes points about how we secure them, namely through government. And finally it makes points about our responsibility to take charge of our government collectively to work together to secure our safety and happiness. So the movement of the argument in a sentence is from our individual rights to what we can do only together by working together through the institutions of government.

  • 11:41:23

    ALLENAnd that's what one loses, that movement from the individual to the collective when you put a period after pursuit of happiness. And if you stop reading the sentence there, I think one begins ultimately even to take a sort of, you know, I would go so far as to say self-indulgent view of the declaration as if what its story is about is just me, right, exactly each of us, me, figuring out what my happiness is, whereas actually it's a powerful argument about what we need to do together.

  • 11:41:48

    REHMHmm. Very interesting. Yet here's an email from Skylar who says, "As an African-American, I believe it's challenging to own the declaration when fundamentally it advocated that all Anglo-Saxon white male Protestant men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. The Founding Fathers conveniently defined Anglo-Saxon white male Protestants as full-fledged human beings rather than the other races and the female sex. Despite their enlightenment ideals, the framers still perpetuated the harmful racial, gender misconceptions of their day."

  • 11:42:44

    ALLENThanks very much. That's a good question. I would make three points about that one. First, it's worth taking the time to look at the original rough draft of the declaration, which you can find online. And you'll see in that a passage condemning King George's support of the slave trade, which was then cut out by Congress.

  • 11:43:03

    ALLENBut it's important to read it because it describes the king as violating the sacred rights of life and liberty of a distant people. In other words, it uses the same language that it uses in the opening to talk about the colonists' rights to talk about the rights of Africans who are being taken into slavery. In addition, in that passage that was cut out, it talks about men being bought and sold in slave markets.

  • 11:43:25

    ALLENNow obviously when they use the word men there, they mean women and children, too, 'cause they're not just talking about males being bought and sold. Women were sold, children were sold, and so forth. So they did use the word men in a universalistic way. We don't use it that way anymore. When I talk about the declaration now, I talk about how all people are created equal. But you can see in the language they did actually mean it in a universalistic way. And then I guess the second point I would make -- and I'll maybe hold back on the third...

  • 11:43:49

    REHMBut before you go on, who pulled out? Who put the pressure to take that out?

  • 11:43:56

    ALLENSo Congress took that out in the revisions of the document, July second through fourth. So the five committee members had agreed on keeping that language, so they were Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York.

  • 11:44:08

    REHMEven though Jefferson owned slaves himself.

  • 11:44:10

    ALLENEven though Jefferson owned slaves although this is where it's important. So he was the only Southerner on the committee. It was four Northerners. And Adams, the man of Massachusetts, was against slavery, never owned slaves himself. It's really important to see the document of the declaration as having many voices in it. And you can see these -- this in many ways, and there's another declaration from the previous summer, 1775, the declaration on the causes and necessity of taking up arms where Jefferson had used the language of rights of life and property in it in a draft.

  • 11:44:39

    ALLENAnd that was taken out by Dickinson who was chairing the committee who wrote a draft and argued that the point of government was the welfare of mankind. And that argument about whether property or welfare or happiness should be the main ideal was an argument about slavery. Dickinson was the only other signers to liberate his slaves in the wake of the signing.

  • 11:44:58

    ALLENAnd he put that -- he chose that welfare word because the property word was being used by slave holders to defend slavery. So when we get life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the opening of the declaration, we're hearing the voice of John Adams, of Dickinson, and those who were against slavery. It really is what I like to call polyphonic document. It's got more than on voice flowing through it.

  • 11:45:16

    REHMHmm. Hmm. And here's one last email from Dave who says, "Apparently Jefferson used inalienable in all his drafts. Adams changed it to unalienable in the final edit. Is there more to this than just a simple preference of usage?"

  • 11:45:42

    ALLENI think that one is just a simple preference of usage. And if you look at the textual tradition of the time not only of the declaration but other texts, you see printers just going back and forth. And they're put in a haphazard way between unalienable and inalienable.

  • 11:45:55

    REHMInteresting. Interesting. All right. Let's go to Amy. She's in East Hampton, N.Y. Good morning to you.

  • 11:46:07

    AMYOh, good morning, Diane. As they say, longtime listener, and I -- first-time caller.

  • 11:46:14

    REHMI'm glad to have you with us.

  • 11:46:16

    AMYAnd something I look forward to during my summers as a -- when I'm off from teaching seventh grade social studies. And I just couldn't resist calling in to express my appreciation for this show and to tell you that, from a perfectly selfish point of view, I feel so validated that every year we read the Declaration of Independence as a class with my social studies students, whether they like it in the beginning or not. But at the -- by the end or by the middle, I have to say, you know, their jaws are dropping over...

  • 11:46:48

    ALLENMm hmm. That's great.

  • 11:46:50

    AMY...the language. But I always emphasize to them is their responsibility. You know, you talked about the responsibility of us citizens, the people who created the government. It's the people who have to make sure that the government protects these rights. So getting to the idea that, you know, there was slavery at the time, that women had no rights at the time, I always say to them -- and they always ask that, you know, hypocrisy. I always say it's our birth certificate, and it's a promise.

  • 11:47:18

    AMYAnd it's up to every generation to fulfill that promise. And then eventually, we go to Seneca Falls, and we see that Elizabeth, you know, Stanton used the Declaration of Independence to show that it's about equality, and it should apply to women, and how, you know, every generation has taken it further. And eventually, you know, it will fulfill its promise. So that's just what I wanted to share.

  • 11:47:41

    ALLENThanks, Amy. That's terrific. I wish I were in your class. I want to just direct you to one other thing. There's a great exchange of letters between Abigail Adams and John Adams. Abigail was pestering John for that whole year about the need to declare independence. And then, as they were moving towards drafting the text, she started arguing for a Declaration of Independence for women. So she wanted to see that thing happen, too.

  • 11:48:05

    REHMNow, there's one more thing I wanted to ask you about your own teaching of the declaration. I gather you do it sentence by sentence, and you have each student read a sentence.

  • 11:48:20

    ALLENThat's right. That's right. I love to start by just having one student at a time -- you know, we all stand up and each take a sentence for our own. So -- and it's -- you know, it's a perfect thing to do with a class 'cause there are really sort of just enough sentences to go around. And then I think, hearing a text out loud is incredibly important to understanding how its language is working at levels of both logic and rhetoric. So I think that's the way one should start reading out loud.

  • 11:48:46

    REHMIndeed. All right. Let's go to Maggie in Baltimore, Md. You're on the air.

  • 11:48:54

    MAGGIEPeace and blessings to both of you.

  • 11:48:56

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:48:56

    MAGGIEGood morning.

  • 11:48:57

    ALLENGood morning. Thank you.

  • 11:48:57

    MAGGIEAnd I also want to thank you for this show. And, Danielle Allen, you did a very good job.

  • 11:49:04

    ALLENOh, thank you.

  • 11:49:06

    MAGGIEYou're so welcome. And I want to say, I'm a longtime reader of the Declaration of Independence and a longtime advocate on the radio for us as Americans to get to know America because we don't know America without the Declaration of Independence. The reason I say that is when the Constitution came 10 years later, most people don't realize that, that the declaration was written 1776. But the Constitution didn't come until 10 years later with the clause, I call it, that says, no slavery, except for punishment. Now, you wouldn't have to say no slavery, except for punishment if slavery had not been abolished with the declaration.

  • 11:50:00


  • 11:50:02

    ALLENWell, that's really complicated. Well, I mean, they did permit the existence of slavery in the Constitution. What they did put an end to -- they set a date for the end of the slave trade. And that was one of, you know, not even the first. I mean, it was really already in the declaration. They compromised around the question of slavery. And those were another series of compromises in the Constitution that we all know issued in the Civil War ultimately.

  • 11:50:26

    REHMTo Mary in Petoskey, Mich., you're on the air.

  • 11:50:32

    MARYMorning, Diane, and good morning to your guest.

  • 11:50:33

    REHMUh huh.

  • 11:50:34

    MARYWhat a wonderful program.

  • 11:50:35

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:50:37

    MARYI have just finished reading a book by Antonia Fraser called "Cromwell: The Lord Protector." And it has become glaringly evident that many of the major concepts in the Declarations of Independence mirror those in the proclamations of the army and the Parliament during the British civil wars of the 1600s and that one of the items is that the king did not in fact rule by divine right of God but actually ruled by the consent of the governed and that...

  • 11:51:11


  • 11:51:11

    ALLENMm hmm.

  • 11:51:12

    MARY...they had a right to abolish a government that was not ruling for the people. And of course they abolished it by cutting off Charles I's head. But what impact do you think that these concepts that came out of the British civil wars of the 1600s had upon our Declaration of Independence?

  • 11:51:33

    ALLENThe period of the 1600s and 1700s were incredibly rich ones for political thought. And absolutely the English Civil War was a period of great ferment, and a lot of great writing about politics emerged then. And the folks who worked on the declaration and generally were participating in continental Congress were extremely well read, so they knew those traditions of political thought, Hobbes, John Locke. They knew the Scottish stuff. Ferguson, Hutchison, so forth. So they were drawing on a quite rich pre-existing tradition without any question.

  • 11:52:04

    REHMAnd to Denise in Tampa, Fla. Hi. You're on the air.

  • 11:52:11

    DENISEGood morning, Miss Rehm.

  • 11:52:12


  • 11:52:12

    DENISEI would like to mention about Mr. Dunlap. I was just thinking about him when the lady mentioned his name. What you may not know is he was born in Ulster in the North of Ireland. He learned his printing trade on a print work machine which is still there, before 1776...

  • 11:52:28


  • 11:52:28


  • 11:52:28

    DENISE...in the town of (word?) in the Southwest of Northern Ireland. And so he was a boy carrying the ink and the paper. And when he came to this country with the wave of Ulster Scots, the Scot Irish...

  • 11:52:41


  • 11:52:43

    DENISEAnd those people started to colonize Ulster in 1607. There are many presidents since then, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Chester Alan Arthur, Ulysses Grant and many others, the gentlemen McKinley who was assassinated. So we're neglecting all of this. I know President Jimmy Carter wrote about the war with the French. They fought against the British in the war for independence. They fought it...

  • 11:53:07


  • 11:53:07

    DENISEThey fought against the English, and the Ulster Scots are never mentioned in this time they were. About 18 presidents descended, and nobody even realizes what they did.

  • 11:53:16

    ALLENThank you very much for raising that question. One of the terrific joys of working on this book for me was to discover how incredibly rich the digital archive is that's now available. You can go to the Library of Congress, go to the National Archives, go to the Massachusetts Historical Society, go to the Jefferson papers. Though the world of the revolution is available to everybody now who wants to tell more of its stories. And there are lots of stories out there waiting to be told.

  • 11:53:39

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Chuck in Statesville, N.C. Hi there. You're on the air.

  • 11:53:51

    CHUCKMiss Allen, I appreciate you being on this show. It's very important to have people understand the declaration. My question relates to the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the whole concept of equality that the Founders were using, particularly as it relates to laws of nature and nature's god, obviously it says, entitles people to that equal station. And then the next sentence, self-evident truths, and they're delineated, one, all men are created equal, second, they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights. And so it seems to me that if we lose the concept of a creator, we lose the concept of unalienable rights and equality.

  • 11:54:29


  • 11:54:29

    CHUCKAnd I wondered if you'd like -- if you comment on that in your book, and you can comment on that online, too.

  • 11:54:36

    ALLENSure. No. Thanks a lot for your question, Chuck. I do comment on it in my book, and I'd be glad to have you look at that at length. So, just briefly, I like to say that what they did in this text is they took a belt and suspenders approach. So that's why we've got Laws of Nature and Nature's God. It's a story about nature and a story about God.

  • 11:54:51

    ALLENAnd they brought those stories together so that people, from across a wide spectrum of belief, could understand the ideals of equality, the idea of natural rights. So there's no question that, for many of those who participated, it was a Christian creator that was part of the story. But that wasn't the case for everybody who participated in writing that document. So, again, I think they took a belt and suspenders approach where nature and God were working together.

  • 11:55:14

    REHMBut did any of those who were participating object?

  • 11:55:20

    ALLENWell, you can -- I mean, the language about God in the declaration changed quite dramatically over the course of the edit. So that -- the slavery language and the language about God are the things that changed most dramatically, so Jefferson did not put that much language about God in. The word creator was not in Jefferson's original draft.

  • 11:55:34

    REHMHow long did it take from the original draft to produce the final document?

  • 11:55:41

    ALLENSo Jefferson started working on the original draft shortly after June 7. The committee worked with him on it. They turned in the final version, I think, on June 25. Then there was lots of politicking going on because Congress didn't know yet whether the resolution for independence was going to come out in favor. So that was all happening, and they won it. They had to take that vote before they could finish working on the text of the declaration.

  • 11:56:04

    ALLENSo they took that vote on June 2. And then they put in two really or two and a half really intense days of editing the document. Franklin and Adams introduced the creator in their edits with Jefferson. And then Continental Congress introduced the language at the end of the declaration about Divine Providence and the Supreme Judge of the world. And their interesting, you know, balancing point -- so when -- so Jefferson's draft identified the truths as sacred and undeniable. When the creator was introduced to the sentence, the word sacred and undeniable became self-evident. So, in other words, they added some religious language.

  • 11:56:35


  • 11:56:36

    ALLENBut they took others out, so it's -- I think you can see a really careful effort to achieve compromised language.

  • 11:56:42

    REHMWould that our own Congress would do they say?

  • 11:56:47

    ALLENHear, hear.

  • 11:56:48

    REHMThank you so much for being with us today.

  • 11:56:50

    ALLENThank you, Diane.

  • 11:56:51

    REHMWhat a gift to the nation to hear you read that Declaration of Independence. Danielle...

  • 11:57:00

    ALLENYou're very kind. Thank you.

  • 11:57:01

    REHM...Allen, her book is titled, "Our Declaration." Thanks for listening, all. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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