Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by Dissent contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Danielle Allen, a professor at Harvard and director of the University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (W.W. Norton and Company, 2014).
Americans revere the Declaration of Independence, but most of us don’t read it. The iconic opening has been dulled by repetition, and it’s followed by a lengthy recitation of forgotten crimes George III allegedly visited upon the colonists. Danielle Allen resurrects the document’s power in her latest book, turning a historical relic into a philosophical inquiry with profound relevance for how we understand liberty and equality today—along with the country whose founding document commits it to ideals that still remain out of reach.
Timothy Shenk: We’re accustomed to thinking of the Declaration as a paean to liberty, but you claim that for the founders liberty and equality were inseparable—in your words, that they believed “equality is the bedrock of freedom.” Today it’s probably more common to view these two as antithetical. Why did the Declaration treat them as complementary?
Danielle Allen: From antiquity—ancient Greece and Rome—through the early modern period, equality and liberty were understood as mutually reinforcing, as part of a picture of politics in which “the people” had participatory rights. The people’s freedom depended on its ability to control elites, and this required political equality. Economic equality also tended to emerge as part of this picture. In ancient Athens, the democracy distributed resources to the poor via employment in the navy and pay for jury, assembly, and theatrical attendance. In Rome, popular participation drove agrarian reforms that had redistributive purposes. These pictures of politics in which the participation of the people is considered inviolable are generally identified as either “democratic” or “republican,” according to how much the balance of powers is weighted toward the common people or elites. But in both pictures, political equality for all citizens (a non-universal category limited to free men with rights) was seen as the bedrock for freedom.
In the early modern period, political equality became central again with the revival of anti-monarchical republican and democratic political movements. One finds formulations about the importance of “equal liberty” in the writings of the American colonists in the late eighteenth century as well as the recognition that that “equal liberty” depended as much on the equality part of the idea as on the liberty part. Notably, in antiquity, this picture of political equality, which conjoined liberty and equality, was generally not linked to a picture of human moral equality. The effort to link those two emerged in the late eighteenth century with pro-enfranchisement abolitionists. Achieving a permanent linkage of moral and political equality has been our struggle ever since.
Shenk: Why did we start to consider them antagonistic?
Allen: People often cite Tocqueville’s argument that in democracies equality would spread without limit while liberty was harder to preserve. I don’t think this is quite right. I think the more significant story has to do with the industrial revolution, the transformation of national and global economies, the immiseration of working populations, the rise of socialism and communism, and the rise of anti-socialism and anticommunism. Marx famously argued, in the Communist Manifesto, that the emancipation of the proletariat would require the “invasion” of the property rights of the bourgeoisie. This led his opponents to formulate an opposition between liberty and equality. For instance, one important American anti-socialist, William Graham Sumner, a late nineteenth-century political economist at Yale, wrote in a pamphlet opposing socialism: “Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest.” This set of oppositions solidified with the Cold War. Take, as an example, a midcentury publication in the libertarian periodical, The Freeman, entitled “Liberty versus Equality: the Eternal Conflict.”
In my view, a shift from social justice to political equality gives us another framework for tackling the hard problems presented by the combinations of industrialization, post-industrialization, and globalization. Political equality does require egalitarian economic policy and putting brakes on the political influence of wealth, but a focus on political equality may help open up conversations about economic fairness that have become stagnant.
Shenk: You argue, to my mind persuasively, that the definition of equality used in the Declaration’s famous insistence “that all men are created equal” was large enough to include enslaved people. If that’s the case, then the founders clearly had a different understanding of the term than most of us have in our heads today. What kind (or kinds) of equality did the Declaration endorse?
Allen: Any time someone starts to talk about equality, one needs to stop them immediately to ask: Which kind of equality? Moral equality, political equality, social equality, or economic equality? The Declaration makes an argument for political equality: the people have a right to control the direction of their political institutions. That argument is grounded in moral equality: all human beings have a capacity for politics, which consists mainly of the capacity to choose and evaluate courses of action. Importantly, the argument then also makes the case that achieving political equality requires social equality. Finally, the Declaration has very little to say about economic equality, other than to suggest that members of the polity should pool their resources for common causes: they “mutually pledge” their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
The question you’re asking is: How can I claim the Declaration’s notion of equality applied to the enslaved when the broad notion I’ve just sketched patently did not? This is a critical question. The answer is visible in an important distinction at the end of the Declaration’s second sentence. The people must institute their government, the text argues, “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
The foundational principle is the principle of human equality. But the form that the men of 1776 settled on for organizing the powers of government was what John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, called “the masculine system,” meaning property holders were to be the decision makers. In other words, the principle of moral equality in the Declaration did apply to the enslaved, but the principle of political equality did not.
And therein lies an excellent frame for what I take to be the key challenge of political philosophy of our day: to develop a theory of justice that unites a commitment to universal moral equality with a commitment to the inviolability of political equality. John Stuart Mill, for instance, even more explicitly than the Declaration, embraced a commitment to universal moral equality but also sacrificed political equality. Isaiah Berlin also sacrificed political equality, being content to argue for political forms that simply protected the negative liberties—the array of activities in which we wish to be “free from interference,” namely in expression, religion, association, and contract—even if they didn’t necessarily guarantee participation. Even Rawls is squishy on political equality, as Elizabeth Anderson has ably pointed out. The list of thinkers who constitute an exception is pretty small: Hannah Arendt, Michael Walzer, Amartya Sen, Philip Pettit. It is not an accident that each has written from a position of cultural minoritarianism. This is obviously true for me, too, as an African American political theorist.
Shenk: One of Our Declaration’s recurring themes is the centrality of language to politics. “Democracies,” you write, “are built out of language,” and the United States itself was “born in talk.” Of course, building alliances requires communication, so discussion always has a place in politics. But you have a more robust sense of the purposes language serves than that minimalist interpretation allows. What makes language so important to democracy?
Allen: For me the importance of language is connected to the inviolability of political equality. Perhaps I should have included Habermas on my list of exceptions above. In one way or another, egalitarian empowerment throughout a citizenry requires figuring out how to weave together voices from all quarters in the decision-making process. Isn’t this issue of weaving voices together the key challenge of crafting democratic institutions? How do we do that in such a way that we achieve egalitarian empowerment of the citizenry, so that each and any can not only voice but influence the powers of government?
Shenk: You call the Declaration of Independence a “teaching tool”: a tribute to democracy that also shows how democracy should be practiced. That’s high praise for a document written almost 250 years ago. What makes the Declaration, in your eyes, such a valuable example of democratic self-fashioning?
Allen: My book is a defense of committee work, which doesn’t get enough attention in democratic theory. Practicing democracy requires very specific sets of skills, bodies of knowledge, and so on, and I take one of the fundamental set of skills to be that of knowing how to convert discourse into decision-making that carries with it legitimacy in the eyes of the people. This is the basic skill involved in serving on a committee, or chairing a committee, or so forth. It doesn’t sound very glamorous, and it’s not, I suppose, but it is the fundamental work of democracy. So the Declaration seems like a very good example of how all those seemingly tedious skills and practices in fact add up to something of great significance.
Shenk: Our Declaration is a remarkable exercise in close reading. Whole chapters are devoted to individual clauses, and there’s a companion article devoted to proving that the period that usually follows “pursuit of happiness” was originally a comma. But my favorite example comes late in the book, when you consider a sentence that’s normally passed over: “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.” At first glance that passage doesn’t seem remarkable, or even memorable. What do you see in it?
Allen: You’re right that at first glance that passage doesn’t seem remarkable. It’s just another rhetorical flourish, another way of condemning the king. But then you realize it’s actually connected to the colonists’ basic definition of what a “free people” deserves—it’s because King George III has failed in this way that he doesn’t deserve to rule a “free people,” they write—and suddenly the sentence opens up. It connects the most basic human instinct for fairness to a very grand political claim about freedom and tyranny. The sentence suggests a completely different way of thinking about politics than we’ve become accustomed to, especially in the wake of Rawls. What if the fundamental question of justice is not one of distribution but of the ability to achieve redress and judicial fairness? This is a question the Chinese activist Ai Weiwei raises in his engagements with the Chinese government, as I wrote about for the Nation. This flips our standard way of thinking on its head. Not that material questions disappear, but that we have to consider how problems in the material domain are linked to problems of justice. Think of current events in the U.S. context and the experience of African Americans. Is poverty the fundamental problem? Or is it a starkly unjust criminal justice system? I think the latter. Fixing the latter, I think, will do more to address the former than vice versa.
Shenk: The Declaration’s defense of equality, you claim, is underpinned by the conviction that “everyone has something to contribute to the shared work of cultivating a collective intelligence that maximizes the community’s knowledge capacities” and the connected belief that each person “is the best judge of his own happiness.” That’s a powerful argument for democracy, but it also looks a lot like the way markets are often portrayed by right-leaning economists—for instance, Friedrich Hayek’s description of prices as markers of the collective preferences of countless individuals, representations that better reflect the community’s wishes than a central planner ever could. Do you see a family resemblance there?
Allen: Not really. The difference is I imagine citizens learning with and from one another and adjusting their preferences on the basis of interaction and deliberation. Hayek has a much more individualized and atomized picture of preference formation so that the market is really just an aggregator of preexisting information. In my argument, the information that flows into political decision-making comes to exist through the course of shared conversations and interactions. In this regard, my work does have some affinities to that of Habermas though, as I argue in From Voice to Influence, I see a far greater network of public spheres as having relevance to public will formation, and I also see other discourse types beyond the deliberative, in particular both the adversarial and the prophetic, as being necessary to politics.
Shenk: As anyone who has paid cursory attention to American politics in the last year knows, inequality is back on the agenda. Just last month, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that two thirds of Americans believed wealth “should be more evenly distributed among more people.” But in these discussions, “inequality” is often conflated with “economic inequality.” Both in this book and in some of your other writing, you’re concerned with a broader interpretation of inequality. What do we miss when we view “economic inequality” as identical with inequality itself?
Allen: First, I take the existence of meaningful opportunities to participate in politics to be a fundamental human right. Protecting this right requires focusing on political equality as such. Thinkers who focus exclusively on economic inequality are sometimes willing to sacrifice that participatory right in favor of material distributions. Second, I take it that ensuring that meaningful political participation is as broad and egalitarian as possible will in itself be a force for ensuring that political institutions are more likely to direct economic policy in egalitarian directions. This was certainly the case, for instance, in the nineteenth century in Britain when the extension of the franchise led to the passage of the Corn Laws. There’s a similar case to be made that late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century populist politics in the United States helped rein in corporations.
Shenk: You treat the Declaration as a philosophical document, and with good reason. For one, as Our Declaration proves, it can stand up to the scrutiny. But there’s a pedagogical rationale, too. “While history can serve to help us understand many things much better,” you write, “it can also function as a barrier to entry.” That’s a fair point: for people unfamiliar with the background, all the names and dates and other historical baggage can obscure what really matters. But I wondered if putting history back in would also make it trickier to cast the Declaration in such a glowing light.
Consider, for example, the connection between freedom and equality. Your discussion of the relationship here reminded me of Edmund Morgan’s argument in his classic book American Slavery, American Freedom, where he wrote: “The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either held slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did. . . . Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew the two were not unconnected.” Going back a hundred years earlier, there’s Frederick Douglass’s extraordinary 1852 address—one of the greatest in American history, I think—“The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” where he asked “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Douglass calls the holiday “the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom”—not, as the title of your book suggests, “our” political freedom. Of course, the position of African Americans in the United States today is very different than in the antebellum period. But given all the evidence about the country’s failure to live up to the Declaration’s ideals that’s been accumulated in the last year, let alone the last two centuries, does all this history change how we should read the document? Does it really belong to everyone? Or is Douglass still right?
Allen: At least two traditions immediately flowed out of the Declaration: an abolitionist tradition and a pro-slavery states’ rights tradition. As early as January of 1777, we see abolitionists, including black abolitionists, using the Declaration to make their case. Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777 and Massachusetts did so in the years from 1780–1783, in both cases drawing on the language of the Declaration. The pro-slavery states’ rights position that also flowed out of the document reached its apex in the Confederacy and when it did it actually required a repudiation of the language of the Declaration. The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, wrote both that the original American union “rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races,” and, of the Confederacy, that “Our government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas: its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural and moral condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great . . . truth.”
So while it’s true that the latter, pro-slavery tradition was incorporated in the Union by means of compromises that served to entrench slavery, an anti-slavery tradition also grew stronger in the wake of the Declaration. It is simply a mistake to paint the whole of the tradition of the Declaration in the colors of one sectional interest.
Shenk: This book is an analysis of the Declaration, but it’s also your celebration of a document you say you “love.” You don’t get bogged down in specifics about the relevance of your interpretation for contemporary politics, but elsewhere you have placed yourself on the left, and by pushing equality to center stage you do stake a claim for the home team. Given how potent a symbol the Declaration remains in American politics, I understand the appeal of this move. But not too long after the Declaration’s signing, many of the same people who brought us that document helped create the Constitution. And while radicals have had an easy time enlisting the former to their cause, the latter has presented more obstacles. I’m thinking, for instance, about abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. He could claim “all men are created equal” as an inspiration, but he also burned a copy of the Constitution. The cult of Washington, Jefferson, and the rest is strong enough in this country that no book can have much of an impact on it, for better or worse, but do you worry that your affection for the Declaration will encourage, even marginally, a reverence for the founders that ultimately does more to hold back the causes you support than to advance them?
Allen: I suppose I’ll just have to admit that that’s the least of my worries. It’s far more important to me to re-engage as broad a public as possible in rebuilding our intellectual muscles for thinking about equality. The Declaration is a brilliant sparring partner. If you want to get strong, this is a good place to start.