Review of Danielle Allen’s “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality”

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M. Andrew Holowchak is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rider University and the author of "Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2013).

“The Declaration of Independence matters because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality,” writes Danielle Allen in the first sentence of her prologue. Its claim to freedom, in fact, rests on “it [being] so clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in equality.” A second lesson of paramount importance is that “language is one of the most potent resources each of us has for achieving our own political empowerment.” She adds, “The achievement of political equality requires, among other things, the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”

Thus, Allen’s book promises to be a text concerning empowerment through language—specifically proper apprehension of the language of the Declaration and how we might use it to empower ourselves—but that is just where it fails. Allen’s own language in her lesson of empowerment is sometimes analytically rigorous, but frequently analogically flaccid; mostly ad rem, but far too often malapropos. She iterates, and reiterates, the sentiment that the Declaration does much in 1337 words, yet one wishes that she would have employed the same verbal pithiness and economy in her book. Her message is important; her method of conveyancy greatly weakens her case for it.

The Declaration was not written by Thomas Jefferson, we are told. It is a democratic work, and democratic works are constructions of committees and intended for a global audience. The Declaration was merely begun by Jefferson, whose original draft was reviewed by the four other members of the original committee, by 51 other members of Continental Congress, and by the clerk Matlack, who “textured the text with his formal calligraphy.” Then there was the influence of “the words and voices of all those people who participated in conversation with Jefferson, Adams, Lee, and Mason,” and perhaps those who conversed with the people speaking with the committee members, and so on. Nearly everyone, it seems, played some role in its construction! Yet she concedes, “The monumental achievement of Thomas Jefferson is, ultimately to have produced a first draft—and a general argumentative structure—that, through its philosophical integrity and unquestionable brilliance, could survive such intense committee work and bear this much demand for agreement.” Is not this concession—that the “philosophical integrity and unquestionable brilliance” of Jefferson’s draft survived in its “general argumentative structure”—at once a concession that Jefferson wrote the Declaration?

Moreover, Allen sometime seems to forget that Jefferson was not the author of the Declaration. For instance, she argues in chapters 27 and 28 that the list of self-evident truths in the document read more like a syllogism, which aims to show, All people have a right to a properly constituted government, and not a list. Here she argues cogently, but she blames Jefferson for “conducting a magic trick of sorts” in making the truths seem like a list. Has she forgotten that the conjurers are numerous? Again, in chapter 30, Allen feels the need to investigate Jefferson’s conception of deity to get clearer on the meaning of the document. Has she once again forgotten that he was merely the creator of the initial draft of this democratic document?

Allen promises (chapter 4) to animate the Declaration by “working against the forces of marketing strategies and our culture” by writing for “the sophisticate and the novice; the frequent and the occasional reader; the history buff and the self-help seek; the lover of democracy whether at home or abroad.” She adds: “This book is intentionally philosophical; it focuses almost exclusively on the logical argument of the Declaration and the conceptual terrain of its metaphors.”

Yet it is in this animate approach—an admixture of immiscibles—to the Declaration that is the book’s undoing. The rigor promised by philosophical analysis seems to be undone by all-too-frequent appeal to analogies and metaphoric expressions, which obscure its meaning.

Allen’s approach, in keeping with analytic philosophy, is often rigorous. Yet it takes her 34 pages to get through analysis of the opening sentence, and it is not merely regard for rigor that slows analysis. Analysis is sidetracked by frequent appeal to analogies, interspersed it seems to aid understanding, but failing in the task. I offer merely a few illustrations.

The Declaration, we find in chapter 10, is “just an ordinary memo.” She illustrates with a memo concerning Charles Prince, CEO of Citigroup, who announced his resignation through a business memo. She admits that the comparison is “admittedly surprising,” for the Declaration is a “model of human achievement,” while a business memo falls considerably short. Yet there is a “kernel of truth in the startling comparison,” as both contain “principles, facts, and judgments.” Yet so too do grocery lists, for the foods listed betray one’s commitment to principles (a way of life), illustrate certain facts (lack of bread in a house), and display judgments (listing a generic instead of a high-profile brand shows preference for economy).

The “course of human events” in the opening phrase, we are told in chapter 14, is riverine, “since ‘course’ is another word for ‘river.” Is it? Rivers have a course, but are seldom referred to as “courses.” Cannot we merely grasp “course” as directional movement without introduction of “river”? Is this analytic rigor or niminy-piminy analysis?

In chapter 22, we are told that the Declaration’s statement at the end of sentence one—“a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”—brings to mind “the language of the 1996 decree ending the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.” Both refer to causes of separation, though in the divorce decree reference is to “causes that might block divorce,” while in the Declaration reference is to “causes that justify it.” How aidful is this comparison?

Furthermore, consider the metaphors, and mixed they are, in these two sentences. “The sentences of the Declaration feel sturdy. No doubt this is because each ringing sentence had been hammered out in so many interlocking circles of conversation [my italics].” Why should anyone, who promises meticulous analysis of the Declaration, fall back on such superabundancy of metaphor to make clear its message of equality when metaphor in the main does anything but assist understanding?

Included in the book, there are numerous insertions with captions—many of which seem to have no better function than space filling. Chapter 12 includes a 1788 drawing of wedding rings. Part IV (page 106) has on it covers of two almanacs. In chapter 24, “Sound Bites,” she includes a list titled “A Few Maxims” from Gentleman’s Pocket Almanac (1797). Chapter 31 includes a 1774 poster which advertises a play titled “Search after Happiness.” How do any of these—and there are many others—relate straightforwardly to our understanding of the Declaration as an argument for equality?

There are many other instances of irrelevancies. Consider chapters 25 and 26. In chapter 25, she invites us to take a close at “who Jefferson was.”Jefferson was a slave owner. He took slave Sally Hemings, “his dead wife’s half-sister,” as a concubine for 33 years and had six children by her. Chapter 26 is a discursion into Jefferson’s psyche. She wishes to understand “what happens ... when what we know from abstract reflection conflicts with what we know from habit, as it did for Jefferson [concerning slavery]?” Allen is puzzled by Jefferson’s anti-slavery commitments in his first draft of the Declaration. There is Jefferson’s avowed detestation of the institution of slavery, and yet “Jefferson benefitted financially, sexually, and, we can even imagine, psychologically” from his slaves.

There are difficulties. First, there is the issue of factual accuracy. We merely do not know whether Sally Hemings was Martha Jefferson’s half-sister, Jefferson’s concubine, and the father of Hemings’s six children. Moreover, we cannot state that Jefferson, who certainly benefitted financially from having slaves, also benefitted sexually and psychologically. Such “facts” are not vetted. Second, why is the character sketch of Jefferson needed, if he was merely the author of the first draft of a declaration that passed through the hands of numerous persons? Would not a character sketch of all persons involved in the Declaration, a truly democratic document, be more apropos? Why not a character sketch of those politicians who likely pushed that Jefferson’s anti-slavery comments be excised?

Related to the issue of irrelevancies, there is the issue of digressions, which makes the book Kerouac-like. In chapter 24, we find an explanation of “sound bite” by reference to a glass, half filled with water. Is it half empty or half full? says Allen. The choice either way constitutes a sound bite, and betrays much about a chooser’s world-view. Yet chapter 25 begins, “In the last chapter I digressed. I confess, I bivouacked on sound bites.” She admits then to “hesitating” before “plunging into” the extraordinarily difficult second sentence of the Declaration. Chapter 24, it seems, was wholly irrelevant. Why then did she not excise the digression (or an editor insist on that)? Here the sophisticate, the frequent reader, and the history buff will likely stop reading. Such digressions, often through appeal to unhelpful analogies like the half-filled glass, do nothing to move forward her argument concerning the Declaration’s message of equality. In chapter 11, Allen writes of human equality being due to humans as political creatures, but cautions, “I am, however, getting ahead of the story”—a sentiment iterated in chapter 13 (“But wait. I am again getting ahead of the story”), and in other places. Why not merely introduce material in the most logically appropriate position in the book and excise such botherations? Thus, Allen’s presentation of material lacks coherency, and does little to show the power of words.

There is also Allen’s use, in a few places, of hyperbole. I offer one instance. “Why did the signers adopt words like ‘course of events’ and ‘necessary’ and ‘impel’?” she says in chapter 24. “I turned over every clue that might help us understand how they saw the world [my italics].”

Allen lapses often into bavardage. I give two instances. First, to illustrate humans’ sense of morality, we are introduced in chapter 11 to two young girls: Hannah, a bully, and Emily, a victim. Hannah kicks and bites Emily so only Hannah has use of a slide on a playground. Later, Emily’s mother consoles her daughter, and says, “Well, dear, at least you have a moral sense.” Then Allen tells us that the writers of the Declaration too assumed that its readers had such a moral sense when they made their case to “members of the candid world.” Yet what of Hannah’s moral sense? Second, chapter 31 offers an illustration for the point that each person has some capacity to see the future. Allen gives an example of a boy and girl meeting at a party and exchanging phone numbers. The boy pledges to call, but does not. The girl, anxious, calls him, and he pledges to call her the next day, when he is less busy. Again he does not. A pattern becomes clear: “He is not attentive to her.” The girl is exhibiting prescience. Such examples are horridly paternalistic.

Finally, there are passages, intended to be rigorous, that are mystifyingly opaque. In chapter 29, Allen delves into references to the Creator in the Declaration. That leads her to the “two most challenging questions,” one of which is “How is it that we come into being as humans in the first place?” Appealing to “Nature’s God” in the first sentence, she states: “If our Creator is nature’s God, then human beings come to be, simply, by being born. It’s as easy as that. We just are part of nature. And the way we are is also part of nature [my italics].” The passage can be fleshed out as an argument, modus ponens:

1. If the Creator is nature’s God, then humans came to be by being born.

2. The Creator is nature’s God.

3. So, humans came to be by being born.

I cannot pretend to know how the antecedent and consequent of the conditional claim in premise one were established. Would the answer of how humans came to be in the first place be any different were there no deity?

In sum, Allen’s book, much lauded by reviewers, fails wholly in its intendment just because of her animate approach. Readers would have been much better served if she had refrained from admixing two things—analytic rigor and metaphor—that are best seen, from the vantage point of enhancing understanding, as immiscible. Readers would have been much better served if she had refrained from trying to write for two different audiences, thereby at times writing thick prose, and at other times thin prose.

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