Contemporary American leftists do not, as a rule, think kindly about the history of the nation they inhabit. Centuries of slavery, the bloody conquest of Indian and Mexican lands, and two long imperial wars in East Asia sullied, if not mocked, the vaunted ideals of liberty and equality. Social movements, past and present, may be a source of pride, but capitalism seems as entrenched as ever. As July 4 came round again, what was there to celebrate?
Anyone who thinks like this ought to read, or re-read, the Declaration of Independence. It is, writes Danielle Allen, a “beautiful” document that “makes a cogent philosophical case for political equality, a case that democratic citizens desperately need to understand.” Allen, a distinguished philosopher, devotes her new book to a close and careful reading of what she calls Our Declaration. She lucidly explains how Thomas Jefferson and his co-authors linked their desire for “liberty” from coercive domination with the need for a government strong enough to allow everyone “the pursuit of happiness.” By detailing the ways King George III lied to and mistreated the American colonists—“a history of repeated injuries and usurpations”—they established the principle that governments should protect and advance the well-being of their citizens. And they made their case not just to their fellow Americans but to “a candid world.” Independence for the thirteen colonies was in the interest of anyone, anywhere, who believed the only remedy for tyrannical authority was for people to govern themselves.
After reading Allen’s perceptive book, it will come as no surprise to learn that left-wing social movements in the United States once routinely employed the Declaration to suit their own needs. From the 1848 feminist Declaration of Sentiments, which asserted that “all men and women are created equal,” to the Black Panther Party, whose 1966 platform reprinted the entire preamble of the original document, the words crafted to justify independence legitimized the idea of a collective break with rule by the unjust and the anti-egalitarian.
Of course, the men who composed and signed the Declaration were hardly paragons of equality. The southerners among them owned slaves, and the Continental Congress deleted from the final version a harsh condemnation of slavery that Jefferson had written.
But Allen, a mixed-race African American, argues that the hypocrisy of the eighteenth-century revolutionaries does not negate the enduring wisdom of their words. The same love of equality and freedom that courses eloquently though the Declaration motivated both her white great-grandmother to campaign for suffrage and her black grandfather to found a chapter of the NAACP in the Jim Crow South. Its legacy can be just as powerful today.
Michael Kazin is the editor of Dissent.