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The Declaration of Independence is still important

In Our Declaration, political philosopher Danielle Allen reflects on the continuing significance of the founding document.


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Danielle Allen, a political philosopher and professor at Harvard, is the winner of this year's Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction for her most recent book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, a discussion of how the Declaration was intended as a guarantee of equality as well as liberty and its continuing importance for all Americans. The Heartland Prize is an annual award for books that reinforce and perpetuate the values of heartland America; previous nonfiction winners include Isabel Wilkerson, Rebecca Skloot, and Studs Terkel. Allen will receive her award November 7 at the Chicago Humanities Fest, along with the fiction winner, Chang-rae Lee, and Salman Rushdie, winner of the Chicago Tribune Literary Award. She'll also be discussing Our Declaration that afternoon with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. "What a thrill it is to receive this award," she said during a recent phone interview. "I love this city. It's where the book was born and where it belongs."


Aimee Levitt: Our Declaration started with some classroom discussions you had while you were teaching at the University of Chicago. Would you like to talk more about that?

Danielle Allen: While I was in Chicago, I was very lucky over the course of ten years to teach at night a course through the Illinois Humanities Council along with my regular day students. The book started with the night students. I was teaching a one-year course in the humanities for students who were trying to get back into the education system after leaving for one reason or another. The course covered history, literature, and criticism. I chose the Declaration of Independence as one of the texts we would study for instrumental reasons, to teach history and writing and political philosophy. It's only 1,337 words, so it's a very efficient text. Much to my surprise, most of the night students had never read the Declaration before. They responded very powerfully. The advantage to teaching to the night students was that we could go through it very slowly. The sentences are long, the syntax is complex. It takes time to read it with coherence, but you discover it's far more complex than it appears. As a political philosopher it was extremely powerful to approach it in that way.

How did the students respond?

The night students decided to change their lives. At the core it's a statement by people making a decision to change their lives and give themselves agency. It pointed to the core of the document. The night students got it instantly.

Did you see it that way before these classroom discussions?

No. I didn't see a very fundamental story about human agency and the capacity of human beings to change their lives.

In the book you talk a lot about the idea of freedom versus political equality. Can you explain that?

One of the things the book points out is that we focus on freedom as the definition of democracy. But there's no freedom without equality. We care about freedom for all, where nobody is dominated by anyone else. If we manage to build a world where it's illegal not to dominate anyone, by protecting that we can achieve political equality. It's about voting rights, economic opportunity, educational opportunity. We need to work for equality with the tools of equality to achieve freedom for all.

How did you use this idea to teach the Declaration?

The story is in stages. I teach the Declaration very differently now from when I started. I take the college students to the story about human agency much faster. Most of the folks at the U. of C. have very good prior preparation. They know about the history of the American Revolution and some of the political philosophy, like John Locke. My first instinct was to give them extra context instead of focusing on the argument. With the night students, the great advantage was that I could zero in on the argument. But I had to learn how to help the prepared students forget their preparation.

Before I started the book I don't think I'd read the Declaration since eighth grade.

And it's so short! And easy to do! We're so focused on the Constitution that we lose track of the importance of the Declaration. It's an act of union, a treaty that the representatives were writing amongst themselves. You see it in the debates at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention where they invoke the Declaration as the legal grounds for rewriting the rules of the game. Between 1776 and 1786, there was clarity of the Declaration as the nation's founding legal text. But now we've become so Constitution focused.

Why don't more students read the Declaration?

In the Common Core, which has been adopted in 40 states, there are only three required texts in the set standards. It's a very open curriculum, but the three requirements are the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and the Gettysburg Address. As of now those are required texts in K-12. Coupled with that, the College Board has said that starting in spring 2016, every SAT exam will test the Declaration. It hasn't flowed through to college level yet.

You spend a lot of the book on a close reading of the Declaration.

There were two stages to the book project. First was the incredible classroom experience that led to the students creating their own declaration of the city of Chicago. I wanted to capture that, but as I started writing I got pulled into the history and how the text got made. One of the most powerful forces is how so many voices were able to hammer out a single text. It puts some perspective around the notion that it's a single view. Each item was a compromise.

It's interesting how they compromised around slavery.

There were two compromises around slavery. One was proslavery and one was antislavery. Locke's original phrase was "Life, liberty, and property." Jefferson substituted "pursuit of happiness." In 1775 and '76, the concept of property was connected to a defense of slavery. "The pursuit of happiness" had no reference to slavery. By December 1776, it was a resource for the newly growing abolitionist movement. The Declaration is an antislavery document, and the abolitionists used it right away. I'm really sad they didn't work it all out. James Wilson said in 1787 that the second sentence is the thesis of our country: "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 effect their Safety and Happiness." That last clause is the responsibility of a citizen. Everyone has to make their own judgment about the formula to achieve safety and happiness. It's a quick lesson in the thinking that's necessary for all citizens. It's a good tool for structuring our society leading to the safety and happiness of all people. Obviously we're not doing it right now—just look at the amount of police brutality and economic inequality. What action is necessary to get us back on course?

Maybe politicians should start reading the Declaration again.

We the people need to reclaim our own politicians and educate politicians on the job they should be doing. We're in a bad place in terms of the quality of our leadership.

Danielle Allen in conversation with Mary Schmich, Sat 11/7, 2 PM, UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt, 312-494-9509,, $12, $5 students and teachers.


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