Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality

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>>John Haskell:
Welcome to the Library of Congress this afternoon. My name is by John Haskell. I’m the Director of
the Kluge Center. I do want to mention something about the noise has been the
decibel level out in front of the Supreme Court has
been fairly high at times. And it may be back. Actually, I think it’s
appropriate with the discussion of the Declaration
of Independence that there’s some demonstrating. I mean it’s a Bill of Rights
thing maybe, but still. The Kluge Center was
created 20 years ago. And in the words of its
charter it was meant “To reinvigorate the
interconnection between thought and action through conversations
and meetings with members of Congress, their staffs, and the broader policymaking
community in order to bridge the divide
between knowledge and power. On a day-to-day basis,
this means that we at the Kluge Center, support
scholars doing innovative and specialized work at
the Library of Congress, and project scholarly
work to a broader audience in events such as this one. Next week on November 21
in Coolidge Auditorium at 4 PM we have an event on
100 years of women voting. Colleen Shogan, Assistant Deputy
Librarian will be interviewing Christina Wolbrecht
from Notre Dame who literally is
writing the book on 100 years of women voting. And Jane Junn from
the University of Southern California. Let me also draw your attention
to a new series at the Library of Congress, which is to continue the national
book Festival, so it’s not just one weekend
in a year at Labor Day but now is during the year and we have an NBF National
Book Festival presents series. We have one more
event in this series, we’ve had several
already this year, including Neil Patrick
Harris on children’s books. Karen Armstrong, a
theologian on her recent book. And tomorrow night at 7
o’clock, Andre Aciman be here on the launch of his new book,
which was just reviewed today in “The Washington
Post,” find me. Which is the sequel
to his best-selling “Call Me By Your Name.” Let’s move to the program today. We are honored to have
Danielle Allen with us. Let me tell you why. She is the James Bryant
Conant University professor at Harvard University
and director of Harvard’s Edmund J.
Safra Center for Ethics. And is a political theorist
who has published broadly in democratic theory,
political sociology, and the history of
political thought. Allen is also the
principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge
Project, a distributed research and action lab at Harvard. The Democratic knowledge Project
seeks to identify, strengthen, and disseminate the bodies
of knowledge, skills, and capacities that democratic
citizens need in order to succeed in operating
their democracy. The lab currently has
three projects underway. The Declaration Resources
Project, the Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment
Project, and the Youth in Participatory Politics
Action in Reflection Frame. She’s here today with
Colleen Shogan, who, as I said is the Assistant
Deputy Librarian for collections and services here
at the library. Colleen is also Dr.
Carla Hayden’s designee on the Women’s Suffrage
Centennial Commission and serves as vice chair of the commission. When this program is over,
we will be taking questions in the last 15 minutes or so. Then, Danielle will be
signing books next door, her most recent book. Please join me in
welcoming Colleen and Daniel. [ Applause ]>>Colleen Shogan: Thank John. What an honor to have
you here today talking about the Declaration. To start us off, tell us
the story of how you came to write a book on the
Declaration of Independence.>>Danielle Allen: Sure, it’s a slightly embarrassing
story, at some level. But it comes out of the best
teaching experience I ever had. That part is not embarrassing. I’ll get to the embarrassing
part in a minute. I taught at the University
of Chicago for 10 years and while I was there, I was
incredibly lucky to get involved in something called the
Clemente Program of Humanities, which was a year-long
course of the humanities for low-income adults. So people often who hadn’t
finished their high school degree, or maybe had started
college but had dropped out and were ready now at this point
in lives to start again and try to reconnect with the
educational system. And the program is
very ambitious. The goal is to give the night
students the same quality of education that we
deliver to University of Chicago students
during the day. But we are talking
about working adults. Adults often juggling
childcare, health complications, and as I said, some people who didn’t necessarily
have a high school degree. So, there’s a kind of
riddle to be solved. How do you deliver the
same quality of education to night students in these
circumstances as you do to the University
of Chicago students? And the solution
to the riddle was that you teach exactly
the same caliber of material you just
teach short texts. Shorter versions of things, or
you just pick short text rather than long, long novels. But great language,
great ideas, etcetera. Same quality of material. So how I came to teach the
Declaration of Independence, and this is the embarrassing
part. Is just that it’s very short. That was my total and
complete motivation for selecting the Declaration of
Independence for this program. Where we were teaching US
history, philosophy, literature, writing, and art history. But once I selected it, it was just immediately
obvious how powerful it was as a teaching text. Not just because of
its historical role, but for teaching philosophy,
for teaching writing. And then the most incredible
thing for me is just the way in which my night
students got to the heart of the text a lot faster than
any of my day students ever had. And that’s a very basic thing. I mean if you think about the
declaration, it is a group of people who have
looked around their world. You know, they say
when in the course of human events it
becomes necessary, they have diagnosed
their circumstances and they have decided
on a change, right, like the voices outside
that we’re hearing. Same thing. And then they said, here’s the
direction we’re going to go. We’re going to change
our circumstances. We’re going to declare
independence. Here’s our reasons. My night students were all
people who were in the middle of trying to change their lives. So they got the text
immediately, whereas sort of day students were kind
of like working their way through oh is it
about the Stamp Act, is it about the Sugar
Act, about the tax? No, it’s about human
agency, people. Like, that’s what the story
is fundamentally about. And so, my night students really
opened up the text for me. And my motivation in
writing the book was to try to recapture the conversations
we had had with each other as we opened this
text up together.>>Colleen Shogan:
Why do you think that all Americans should
read the Declaration slowly and carefully.>>Danielle Allen: So,
again, I mean I just, you know the Declaration
is this incredible text. It’s 1337 words. And as Lincoln said about it,
it established the proposition that all people are
created equal and it erected a new
system of government on the basis of that
proposition. But the thing that
so interesting to me about the text is that
it actually in itself, makes the case that
all you need to know to understand what
democracy is, is in this text. Right, so in other words, the
human equality that we have is that the argument
this text makes about human agency is
accessible to all of us. All right. And so reading or
listening, it doesn’t matter. The point I’m trying to make
here is that every American, as a part of activating the
equality that brings us together as democratic citizens,
can understand the purpose of democracy by engaging
with this text. So that’s why I think
it’s important because it’s brevity
rests on its own claim about quality, all right. That is, it’s brief as a
part of being accessible. And its accessibility
is underscoring the fact that human beings know
what agency is, right. Day after day, every
human being is trying to make tomorrow
better than today. That’s what human agency is. It’s just that effort. The engagement of our spirits in
making our world better tomorrow than it was yesterday. And that’s what this
text is about. And so I believe it was
constructed in order to help people really
focus in on that kernel story
of human agency. And what its implications are for the political
systems that we build.>>Colleen Shogan: Is
Thomas Jefferson the author of the Declaration?>>Danielle Allen: So you
know my views on that subject. So, I like to say you know,
here’s a secret, okay, if you want credit
for something. Okay, remember this, think
about what is it in your world that you want credit for. Everybody got it, what’s the
thing you want credit for. Okay, put it on your tombstone. Okay, because his tombstone
says author Declaration of Independence. And that is really why we think
Thomas Jefferson is the author of the Declaration
of Independence. That is the fundamental reason because what actually
was the case, is that he is the
chair of the committee. So he did absolutely get credit
for being the person responsible for drafting the first
draft that went to Congress. Congress then revised it. But as he was drafting
it, he worked very closely with John Adams, and
Benjamin Franklin. And they made direct
edits on the text. Adams was the real
generator of some of the key ideas in the text. And we actually can see that, not just because he you know
wrote treatises in 1776 arguing that happiness was the core
principle that they should use to think about their
political efforts. He also wrote a text for
Massachusetts in January 1776, which is a rough draft for the
Declaration of Independence. And there and the other
pieces of this kind. So Jefferson was young
and not super important. And Adams was really,
really, really busy, that’s an important thing to
know about the spring of 1776. Adams was on like
every committee in Continental Congress,
basically. Jefferson had time on his hands. When they decided to
move the resolution for independence forward,
before they actually took a vote on independence, they
set up a committee to draft the statement,
justifying it. And when they set up committees
to write the preambles to go with resolutions in Congress,
they always did it by vote. And whoever got the most votes
would chair the committee to do this. As I said, Adams
was really busy. He did not have time to
draft the Declaration of Independence, okay. But he liked how
Jefferson wrote, so he worked the
hustings behind the scenes and got Jefferson elected chair. So Jefferson won
the vote by one. Adams came in second
right behind him. And then Franklin, Roger
Sherman, and Robert Livingston. So they were the committee
of five that worked together to draft the Declaration. Congress then cut out 25%
before finally voting on it and approving the July 4th
version that we all now know.>>Colleen Shogan: Now, was
the writing complete on July 4, 1776, or did the
Declaration change?>>Danielle Allen: So,
that’s a great question. I love to think of the Declaration
as a living document. And it’s incredible how many
voices are in the Declaration. So, when you read the texts as
we sort of standardly read it, you’re hearing some
of Jefferson’s voice, you’re hearing some
of John Adams’s voice. And it’s really important to say
that Adams never owned slaves, though enslavement
was a terrible thing and was working against
enslavement. So, you actually hear the voice of an anti-slavery
position in the declaration. And I would be glad to
talk more about that. But in addition to that,
there’s the question of how was the text made
public, who made it public and how did they add their
voice to the story of the text? And you have John Dunlap, who
printed it first officially for Congress immediately. And then you have somebody
named Timothy Matlack, who was this kind of, this
is sort of an oxymoron, like rabble rousing Quaker. That’s not supposed
to go together. But apparently, he was
a rabble rousing Quaker. He’s a Quaker who got
into fights and like, like cockfighting, how these
things go together, who knows. But he also had very
elegant calligraphy. And he was the person
whom Congress engaged to produce this, sadly now
no longer legible to us. And he capitalized sort of
a really important place in the document, the word we. He capitalized we. It hadn’t been capitalized in
any of the previous versions. And he was really a Democrat. He participated in Pennsylvania’s
constitutional convention. He really advocated for
the Democratic structure of the Constitution
in particular, which was more directly
democratic constitution that some of the other
states were adopting. And I believe in that moment
he was sharing his voice. He was putting himself in the document alongside
the voices of the others. Mary Catherine Goddard, a printer is another person
whose voice I like to point out. She was given the first
commission by Congress to produce one broadside poster
version of the Declaration for each state capital. And so in January of 1777 she
produced these poster versions. And in her version, and the
words for God are in all caps. So, creator is in all caps. And supreme judge,
and divine providence. And so, she would appear,
or her printshop wanted to emphasize religiosity
in the document. But it also underscores the fact
that it hadn’t been emphasized by other people, right. So you have very different ways
of thinking about the document and its words and its
arguments across the colonies and in the different voices
of people who participated in sharing it with the public.>>Colleen Shogan:
Okay, so we’re going to try something different. We’re going to actually
read the first two sentences of the Declaration. And engage in a close reading
like you do in your book. And we’re just going to go
back and forth and try to tease out some of the meaning. So, for the first
sentence, you make the point that the Declaration of Independence is
basically a memo. So, talk a little
bit about that. This is the first
sentence in a memo.>>Danielle Allen: Yeah. So, a memo comes from the
Latin word memorandum. Which is a thing that must
be remembered, all right. And so, we use that word for
all of the work that we use in offices, and bureaucracies,
and so forth. Because human social
organization depends on our developing things
that we remember together. Shared memories, right. So, we always talk about after
our phone call it’s memorialized that conversation, we just had so we both remember
the next steps. And so, a memo is the basic
instrument human beings use for coordinating
action all right. It means it is a document. The purpose of which is
to develop shared purpose and shared steps
to take together. And that’s what the
Declaration is. They were making a
decision together. They were declaring their
independence from Britain and their rights as sovereign
states to form treaties, and operate a military,
and so forth. And in addition to
memorializing this decision, they wanted to explain it. So this was a memo that
they distributed internally to the military, and then to
foreign governments to explain and make memorable and remembered the action
steps they were choosing.>>Colleen Shogan: Okay, now when I write a memo
I don’t usually appeal to the course of human event. Maybe I should, maybe I
should start doing that.>>Danielle Allen: You
should try it’s a lot of fun. I do it actually,
it’s a lot of fun. I do it actually it
always makes me laugh when I stick that into a memo.>>Colleen Shogan: Tell
us about with that phrase, why is that the beginning
of the Declaration, why do they make that appeal?>>Danielle Allen: So, if
you spent time, see I’m lucky to have you know slightly
eccentric parents. We all have eccentric
parents, right we all think of our parents as eccentric. And my mother is
rare books librarian. And one of her passions in life
is for early American almanacs, which were other than the
Bible, those were the two books that were most common in colonial America
in people’s homes. And an almanac is this great
thing, which my favorite feature of it is that it predicts the
weather for the entire year. Right, like you’re in January, and it’s like November
13th it’s going to rain. Anyway, I just love that kind
of bizarre self-confidence. So almanacs are a lovely way
to learn about the culture of early America, because of
all the visual stuff that are in them, all the etchings and
engravings and things like that. When I was working on this
book and using the kind of visual material from those
almanacs to give myself more of an immediate sense
of the time, and the place, and the culture. I was struck just by how often
there were images of rivers, and water with ships sailing
on them that they were using to talk about the experience of
trying to navigate challenges or see their way to the future. And as I was looking at those
images, I realized that’s what’s in that phrase, course
of human events. It’s the image or metaphor
of a river in that phrase. And in that simple word you get
a kind of beautiful rendering of the challenge of human life. That the river has currents that
are unpredictable and tricky. There’s a place you’re
trying to go but is not completely
within your control. But your job sort of steering
your personal ship or the ship of your community, co-steering
it with others is to try to figure how to
navigate this course. And so, right from the get-go, with just little
beautiful implicit image of a river in the word course. You know that you’re starting
into a story of human agency and the kinds of
decisions human beings make about where they
find themselves.>>Colleen Shogan: When you
do read the declaration slowly and carefully, as you
suggest people should, some phrases really stick
out in the first sentence. The first one that stuck
out for me was one people. That’s pretty revolutionary
that the colonists at this point in time are referring to
themselves as one people, right?>>Danielle Allen:
Absolutely, yes. I mean this is an assertion. This is a moment of creation. There will be plenty of people
who would say that at this point in 1776, they hadn’t yet come to understand themselves
as one people. You can see this in the records
from Continental Congress, where they refer
to their country, their home country, Virginia. Their home country,
Massachusetts. They had been now been meeting
together in Continental Congress in 1774, so, for two years. But that’s how new
the notion was that they would be doing
something together. And even across the breadth
of the colonies, yes, lots of English immigration. Yes, lots of different sort
of strings of Christianity, there was some sense
of something shared. But there was also a
lot of heterogeneity. There was religious diversity. Rhode Island had a really
significant Jewish community. Pennsylvania, of course
had a very significant German community. So, languages were complicated. The Dutch in New
York and so forth. So there was by no means a sense of there being cultural
homogeneity. And Bernard Bailyn’s I think “The Barbarous People” is
excellent account of the range of diversity in the colonies. But what they were coming to
understand was that the project of self-government, of building
a world where people can be free and equal citizens depends first
on the creation of a people. A group of people who
will mutually commit to that project of
self-government. And so, they are, in this
moment in the beginning of the Decoration
of Independence, asserting that they are
making this thing, a people. It’s the first thing
they make is a people.>>Colleen Shogan: The other
phrase that really stood out for me was separate
and equal. And that really makes you pause
because you don’t think separate and equal, you think
separate, but equal. So, talk about how
segregationists in the language of Plessy really took this
language and adopted it for really means very opposed to
what the Declaration stands for.>>Danielle Allen: Yeah, and that’s a really
important question. And yes, I mean this phrase
separate and equal station, I think does give birth to the
language of separate but equal that developed post
Plessy v. Ferguson to explain segregation
in Jim Crow. So, to understand
that, you have to dig into what the phrase means. And what it really is doing
is giving us our first concept of equality in the declaration. Okay, it’s the first time
the word equal appears. And this first concept of
equality is about the equality between different
sovereign states. It comes out of the
legal tradition of European state sovereignty
from the Westphalian treaty as people talk about it. So the notion that once
you have a sovereign state, no other sovereign state
can interfere with anything in the territory of that
first sovereign state. Philosophers described
this as an idea that you know France
can’t dominate Spain, can’t interfere with each other. England can’t interfere with
Austria-Hungary, etcetera. So, you have this
sense of agency, a sphere of agency
controlled by sovereign states. It’s important that
sphere of agency which sovereign states
have in relationship to each other is also the
model for the sphere of agency that citizens, in a
self-governing society has to have with each other. Every person needs
a sphere of agency such that they cannot be
dominated by any other person. And it’s the job of rule
of law to secure that. So in other words, as citizens, we are supposed be
separate and equal. We’re supposed be protected from
each other, by the rule of law. And equal, have equal
standing within our polity, as participants in our
decision-making processes. So what happens exactly to
get from separate and equal, as a kind of positive
statement that citizenship to separate but equal. This is obviously
the long, hard, complicated story
of American history. And I want to call
out to moments in it to make sense of
that transition. The first relates to
Jefferson, actually. It’s something I’ve come to
understand more recently. Sort of since writing the book. Lots of people really
wrestle with the question of how could Jefferson
be even chair of a committee that
drafted this. You know, I won’t say author,
but he’s chair of the committee that drafted this
great language we have about equality and
the Declaration. And also have been an enslaver,
an owner of enslaved people. How could these things
fit together? And especially people ask
this question when they look at the whole draft that
Jefferson generated, which includes a paragraph
condemning the slave trade. And when he condemns the
slave trade, he calls it cruel and he describes it as a
violation of the sacred rights of life and liberty of a
distant people in Africa. And that vocabulary of
sacred rights of life and liberty is exactly the
same as the vocabulary he uses to talk about the colonists
themselves with their rights to life, liberty, and happiness. In fact, in one of his early
drafts he even used the words sacred to talk about those
rights for colonists. So, in his first draft. Jefferson lays out the notion
that people from Africa, people from Europe have
the same sacred rights of life and liberty. So, you know what gives then
with this guy who is enslaver, holds people as property
and so on. And what it all comes
out to ultimately, is that Jefferson
did actually think that there was a general
set of human rights that all people have access to. He did not believe in the
capacity of white and black to build worlds together. So Jefferson actually and
this is comes out later of his writings does have
a vision where people in Africa might well
builder their own self-governing societies. And white people in the
US would build theirs. And there’s a separate,
but equal idea that comes out of Jefferson’s
writing about race. So, that’s the sort
of first thing to say. But then there’s the second
moment, which is of course when the Confederacy appears on
the scene and takes the question of racial supremacy and
wants to make it the heart of a political project. So, people often don’t
know that the Confederacy in setting itself up
its leadership believed that they needed to rewrite
the Decoration of Independence, right, that they needed their
own Declaration of Independence. And Alexander Stevens was
the person who drafted this and he says, about it, you
know first of all the language of it says that you
know the white race and the black race
are not equal. That the white race is
superior to the Negro race. And he describes the Declaration
as being the first ever to found a government
on the truth that white is superior to black. So the point is that the
Confederacy understood that the Declaration
focused on equality and subconsciously
thought they had to replace that with an inegalitarian
statement of purpose as a part of launching the Confederacy. And so, that tradition then,
sort of hooks up with the sort of Jeffersonian approach and
ends up generating our separate but equal concept that operated
in segregation in Jim Crow. That was a very long-winded
answer, I apologize. I hope those pieces fit
together and made some sense.>>Colleen Shogan: Okay, one
more question before we move onto the second sentence. Why is it the laws of
nature and nature’s God. Why both?>>Danielle Allen: Yeah, it’s no
I like to talk about that phrase as the belt and suspenders
moment in the Declaration, right. So the Declaration is a
marvel for many reasons. One of the reasons is the way in
which it has compromises in it. There’s a good compromise
and a bad compromise. The bad compromise has to do
with slavery, when I told you about pieces of it, I haven’t
told you the whole picture yet. The good compromise
is about religion. Where there was an
effort to achieve a text that people could sign on
to regardless of whether or not they were
believers or not believers, deists, or even atheists. And if they were believers,
regardless of what kind of doctrine of belief they had. So none of the religious
language in the Declaration has
any doctrinal connection. So it’s all open-ended. Nature’s God, supreme
judge, divine providence. It’s not Christian, it’s
not Jewish, it’s not Muslim. You can’t name it as
any particular doctrine or no sect of Christianity. But it was also the case
that there were people who weren’t believers
participating in the development
of the Declaration. And for them, the
question of well, what justifies this
picture of human beings. The answer is laws of nature. So, we have a picture
of how nature operates and what human beings are in
some sense in their essence. And that suffices. You don’t need a divine
guarantee in order to explain the moral
basis of the Declaration. So you get this sort of great
belt and suspenders phrase as I say, where you know
what explains this concept of human beings building their
own sovereign states together? Well, the laws of nature
and nature’s God, right. You can pick either
justification you’d like to move forward in
adopting these ideals. So, you can give it
a religious basis or you can give it
a secular basis. Either way, that’s the
compromise that they achieved as a part of finding a way
to move forward together.>>Colleen Shogan: Okay,
we’re going to move on to the second sentence. Now, if you thought the
first sentence was complex. The second sentence
is really complicated. You’re going to have to
talk us through this. So, let’s start with
the big picture. Tell us about the
structure of this sentence. How many claims are in it? Talk us through that.>>Danielle Allen: Well,
we always have to start by reading it out
loud, or reciting it out loud, if you’re like me. So, that’s why I always give
people the homework assignment I always say this is what you do, you go and you memorize
this sentence. 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. And then, I always like
to say, do you remember that it was that long? You guys are here, at
the Library of Congress, so you might well
have remembered that it was this long, but
most people don’t realize that this sentence is this long. And there’s a long story
about why that’s the case. But let me for the moment
just answer your question. Which is that this beautifully
crafted sentence is what philosophers would
call a syllogism. And my favorite example
of a syllogism is always. Syllogisms sort of
has two to premises and a conclusion that’s
logically entailed by the premises. So, for example, all
human beings die. Bill Gates’s is human. Bill Gates will die. All right. And there’s supposed to be a
charge around that conclusion because we so lionize
Bill Gates. We forget he’s going to die
just like the rest of us. He’s no better than any,
we’re all going to die. Bill Gates is exactly the
same as me in that regard. But the premises, because
we forget that feature of Bill Gates, the premise
is that necessitate it, and then the conclusion feels
as if it’s showing us something that we had forgotten
about or hadn’t seen. And in 18th-century,
actually in logic handbooks, this is the definition
of self-evidence. Okay, self-evidence
is a conclusion that follows logically
from its premises. So, that’s what this
sentence is doing. It’s giving us a set of premises that logically lead
to the conclusion. What are the premises? People have rights, premise one. Premise two, people
institute government to secure those rights, all
right, and then there’s a left out premise implicit
that you have a right to whatever you need to secure
the things you have rights to. But then the conclusion is if the government is not
securing the rights the way it’s supposed to do, you have the
right to alter or abolish it. Okay, so humans have
rights, people have rights, we build governments
to secure rights. Conclusion, if government
is not doing its job, we get to change the government. Okay? It’s gorgeous. It’s a very compact,
efficient theory of revolution. So, philosophers from the 18th
century are kind of competing over people’s theories
of revolution. It’s like this one kind
of wins for shortest, shortest most compact
theory of revolution. But beyond that, what it
is, is really an account of the basis for
self-government. Namely, again that human
beings have rights, we can sort of talk more about
what that means, and that we, human beings work together
to build governments to secure those rights. So that the fundamental sort
of feature of human agency that I started out by talking about is then captured
in the last clause. People have to diagnose whether
the government is securing their rights, and then if it isn’t,
it’s their job to alter it, right, within there
being two jobs; two pieces to that
job of alteration. Lay the foundation on principles and organize the
powers of government. There’s like a two-part
task list for thinking about what it means
to be a civic actor. Principles and organize
the powers of government. So, the structure, syllogism,
two premises, a missing one, and then the conclusion
to deliver an argument about just forms of government
and the consent of the people.>>Colleen Shogan: So, we talked
a little bit about self-evident. Let’s talk about
the phrase all men. And you have a particular
interpretation of who that includes. So, can you talk a
little bit about that, and you use the Declaration
to answer that question.>>Danielle Allen: Sure. So, it’s really important to recognize how the
language worked at the time, and also to acknowledge that language works
differently now for us. So, the word men
here was an example of the general universal usage
of men to capture human beings. And we know that Jefferson used
the work this way because later in his draft he does
the same thing. So, in the same passage
I mentioned, about the condemnation
of the slave trade, he condemns slave markets
where men, and he writes it in all caps are bought and sold. And we know that
in slave markets, women and children were
also bought and sold. There’s no sense in which
that use of the word man, was supposed to mean only males. And it’s exactly the same here,
that the word is being used to capture all human beings. That said, it doesn’t excuse
or do away with the fact that they also chose to organize
the powers of government through a patriarchal structure
of political organization. So the principles were ones
that they did actually mean with the universal
conception of human beings. But when it came time to talk
about how to organize the powers of government, that
they were very explicit about restricting to men. And in the language
of John Adams, when Abigail Adams pushed him
to say what about the women, where do we fit in all of this? His answer was that the
principles rights of life, liberty, and happiness
that’s for you too. That’s for everybody. But in terms of how that gets
delivered, that’s the job of men and we’re not going to
give up, in his phrase, our masculine system
of government for delivering on those rights. So that final cause
that distinctions between the principles that
everything is grounded on and how the powers of
government are organized. That’s how they split
their thinking, right. So, they really did actually
think the principles captured all human beings. But then they had patriarchal
and race-based conception of how to organize the powers
of government. That’s where the
problem came in.>>Colleen Shogan: We
see the second usage of the word equal
in this sentence. In what sense is
equal used differently or have a separate
meaning than what we say in the first sentence?>>Danielle Allen: Great. No, thank you. That’s a great question. So, the first sentence, I
really pointed out the concept of these spheres of agency that
are left untouched by others, free from domination by others. This passage gets to
something different. It gets to what I
like to describe as basic human moral equality. So, you might think that
first concept as being kind of political equality
that I was trying to name. And now, this gets to
basic human moral equality. Where it really focuses
on the thing that puts us on an equal footing
with each other. And that is just that
kernel of agency I described at the very beginning. The fact that every
human being is trying to make tomorrow better than
today, or better than yesterday. Each of us in our way
is pursuing happiness, some improvement in
well-being or welfare. And then, in order to
do that, to act on that, we need protections for life and
liberty that make it possible for us to act on that kernel
of agency that we have. But the other really important
thing in the sentence that gets to this concept of human
equality is the notion that human beings make
judgments for themselves about their safety
and happiness, okay. And the declaration rests on
this really quite stunning idea that for each and every one
of us there is no human being, other than ourselves
who is better positioned than we are ourselves
to make judgments about our future happiness. Did you follow that? That was an abstract
formulation. So, in other words, it’s true
that none of us are really that good at figuring
out our own happiness. Okay, like we have
to admit that. Like, we’re mostly pretty bad at
figuring out our own happiness. But even though we’re not that
great any of us at figuring out our own happiness, there’s
not a single human being out there who’s better
positioned than I am myself to figure that out for myself. There’s no other human being
who has access about what I know about my aspirations,
about my capacities, about my commitments, and
my loves and my passions. Nobody else has access
to all of that. And as a consequence, no other
human being can answer the question of what my
path to happiness is. And so there’s a sort of
staggering recognition of actually weird like
isolation of human beings in their responsibility for
their own path to happiness. But in that isolation
that we have is also where our individual
empowerment and agency reside. And our equality to one another. You can’t tell me what
my path to happiness is because you don’t got
the goods to know. All right. That puts the responsibility
on me. I’ve got to answer
that question myself because I’m the only
one who’s got the goods to figure that out for myself. But then once you recognize
that about human beings, it’s kind of really
a deep point, because it really
raises the question then about how do we then build
collective structures and do political work together
once we recognize that. None of us has actually
really got the goods to tell anybody else what to do.>>Colleen Shogan: And happiness
is a really deliberate part of this sentence and it appears
twice actually and instead, we know that the drafters had
read Locke and the thought of life, liberty; and
Locke wrote about life, liberty, and property. He did not write about life,
liberty, and happiness. So, there’s a deliberate
insertion of happiness twice as basically as you said to
the end of government, right.>>Danielle Allen: Yep, exactly. Okay, so my other homework
assignment for you. That part of it,
that’s John Adams. Not Thomas Jefferson okay. I’m about to tell you why
it’s really, really important. But please take away the
idea that John Adams was as much an intellectual
architect for this as Thomas Jefferson was. It’s a hugely important part of
the story of the Declaration. So, first it’s worth noticing that the phrase moves
from I to we. My right, to life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness to their, our safety
and happiness. So this move from
rights that we have to governments we
institute together, result in our securing together
our safety and happiness. It makes the final
point about democracy that it’s difficulty is in
this movement from I to we. This conversion of what’s
my conception of what I need and mine to some
collective picture. Okay, so it’s focusing
ourselves on the difficulty. But what about this
word happiness itself. Why does it show up here? So, life, liberty, and property
was the more common formulation. But in the fall of 1775, Virginia’s royal governor
Lord Dunmore declared that any enslaved person who
escaped a plantation to fight for the British would
secure their freedom. They would be granted
freedom by England. And this was what
radicalized the Virginians to participate in
the revolution. So that’s the bad news,
part of this story, right? Virginia really was radicalized
to commit to independence by a threat to the
slavery system. And at the point of
the radicalization, they started complaining
that King George, through Lord Dunmore with this
decree had violated their rights to property. And from the fall of 1775
the defense of the right to property became
very closely connected to a defense of slavery. Okay, so by the spring of 1776
they were debating the question of how to explain
what this thing was that they were embarked
on together. But property had become
linked with slavery. John Adams is the one who
starts writing that the cause that they should
focus on is happiness. He publishes a pamphlet called “Some Thoughts Concerning
Government” in April of 1776, where he argues that
just as the end of individual man is
happiness, so too is the end of government, happiness. And he draws on a tradition
of Aristotle and theologians and so forth to call up the
concept of happiness is the one that they should prioritize. And we can see the debate
about these two terms happening through the course
of the spring. So, for example, in May, when George Mason drafts
Virginia’s declaration of rights, he uses both phrases. He talks about rights to
acquiring and securing property and also to pursuing happiness. He put them on an equal footing. So what’s happening is
there’s clearly a debate which concept property or
happiness should be used as the ends of government. And in the period from
May through the drafting in June amongst this committee
on five, happiness wins. In other words, Adams wins. Jefferson has not used
this vocabulary previously. This is Adams’s vocabulary
all the way through. And it is a moment that is
basically an antislavery moment in the Declaration. So, congress takes out the
passage condemning the slave trade, that’s a proslavery
moment when congress does this. But this phrase, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness
displaces property. And that’s antislavery moment. So, that’s the second
compromise. The first one I described
was one about religion. This is the second
compromise in the Declaration. And we know that
people recognized it as an antislavery moment because
the people who first made use of the Declaration and make use of this sentence
were abolitionists. So, as of January
of 1777 Prince Hall, who was a free African-American
in Boston used vocabulary from this sentence of the
Declaration to put a petition to the Massachusetts assembly
for the end of slavery. And slavery was ended in
Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Vermont in the year 1780
to 83, flowing directly out of, sort of crystallization of
commitments and alliances around the vocabulary from the
sentence in the Declaration.>>Colleen Shogan: One last
question before we move on from our close reading. Why is it important that the
first mention of happiness that there is a comma after
that word rather than a period.>>Danielle Allen: All right. So, you’re going to get to my
like, bee in my bonnet subject. Okay. So, I’m so happy
to have this beautiful, complete sentence
on this screen. Because this is how
Thomas Jefferson wrote it in his drafts. When John Adams copied out the
draft, this is how he wrote it. When Charles Thompson,
the secretary for congress inscribed
the Declaration in the minute books
for congress. This is how he wrote it. When John Dunlap, the
first official printer for congress printed it,
this is how he printed it. But there was a man in Philadelphia named
Benjamin Town, who was a kind of get rich newspaper publisher. Where his basic approach
to getting rich was to publish faster than anybody
else, and more frequently. So, he would publish his
newspaper roughly 3 times a week, where most people
were publishing once a week at that point. Somehow, and we still do not
know how somebody slipped him a copy of the Declaration
before it had even gotten to congress’s official
printer John Dunlap. So, Town came out with a version in his newspaper before Dunlap
got the official version into his paper, two days later. And Town, apparently thought that this sentence was pretty
long and he put a period after the pursuit of happiness. Okay, and so now, then the story
gets very, very complicated. But if you go to the National
Archives website, for example, the transcription of the
sentence has a period after the pursuit of happiness. And why does this matter? I was in Philadelphia
some number of years ago watching an
exhibit about independence, watching some kids go through. And they were looking at
a text of the Declaration that had a period after
pursuit of happiness. It was a group of four or
five teenagers gathered around and they all read it out,
started reading it, and they got to pursuit of happiness and
they stomped their feet, and stopped reading,
and walked off. Because there was a period
there, they stopped reading. So, what does that mean? For them, the self-evidence
truths consist of the individual
rights, that’s all. Whereas the self-evident truths
are the story of the fact that we collectively
build government together to protect our rights. And then finally have the job
of changing our government if it’s not securing our rights. So they missed the entire story. They don’t get to
move from I to we. They get a very libertarian
picture of what rights are about. They’re just about my rights,
they don’t get the story about what we do together
to secure our rights as a people working together. And it’s really thanks
to Benjamin Town, his newspaper circulated
to about half the colonies. More in the southerly direction. John Dunlap’s correct version
circuit more northerly direction as it happens. So, sort of accidents
of history. And then the challenge is,
I’m engaged in a big, ongoing, long-term fight that will
probably last my whole life with the National Archives,
because we go back to the first, can we go back to
the first slide? All right. See, the problem is, okay this
is the thing that was signed. All right. Now, if you try to
transcribe that, can you? You cannot. So, what has the National
Archives done instead? They’ve transcribed the
1823 stone engraving, okay. And now they acknowledge that, I’ve gotten that
far in my fight. That now their website says
that the transcription they have up there is the 1823 stone
engraving, not this text. But the trouble is that the
stone engraving put a period after pursuit of happiness. All right, because lots of
versions did following Town. But the other trouble is
that people for a very, very long time have thought the
stone engraving was a perfect copy of the original. It’s not okay. My team has found four
punctuation discrepancies not even counting this
one and a bunch of other discrepancies
in the document. But because everybody thinks
the stone engraving is a perfect copy, they transcribed the
Declaration with a period after the pursuit of happiness. And that’s the number
one version of the text that you will find if
you search for it online. That said, if you read the books
of scholars on the Declaration, Poly Ann Mayor for example, down the line scholars all
the way back to Carl Becker, you always get the
complete sentence. So, scholars have been
clear on what the text is for a very, very long time. But it’s very difficult
to convince people that the stone engraving
is not the right thing to use for transcription. My recommendation would be that
we use the text as recorded in the minutes of
congress as the text. That’s my recommendation,
so I’m passing it off. But there you go, that’s my.>>Colleen Shogan: So, the other
argument you have in your book, really quickly here,
briefly is a normative one in which you want
to restore the role of equality in the Declaration. So, tell us why freedom
requires equality, and why equality
preempts freedom.>>Danielle Allen: Can we go
back to the second sentence? Sorry, yeah. Just so we can have
it in front of us. I mean it’s a pretty basic idea. So, when people have
thought about self-government in antiquity, so
Greece, and Rome, and then in the 18th century. A very common phrase to use to
talk about self-government was to refer to a society of
free and equal citizens. And for a lot of the history of
political philosophy, freedom and equality were understood as
going hand-in-glove together. And this is pretty
straightforward at the end of the day. If what you mean in the idea
that you’re building a society where people will be free is
that everybody will be free. The only way that you can
have freedom for everybody is if nobody dominates
anybody else. And to say that you
live in a world where nobody dominates anybody
else, is to say that you live in a world where people
are equal to each other. So, you can only have freedom
for all if people have equality in relationship to each other. Now, the equality that
I am capturing there with that idea is very
specifically political equality. Okay. The notion that everybody
has to have political rights to participate, to
be a cocreator of political institutions
and of laws, and so forth. At the same time that they
have personal freedoms and private liberties. So, this concept of political
equality is one that was central to how the people who
drafted the Declaration and the Constitution thought
about what freedom is. Since that time, we’ve
gone through sort of complicated arguments
and debates about things like communism, and
economic egalitarianism, and has shifted people’s
intuitive understanding of what equality is, so that
now you invoke the concept of equality, people will think in the first instance you
might mean equal distribution of material goods, for example. Now, that is something
that is in conflict with the concept of freedom. And it requires a lot of sort of
legal structuring and so forth to achieve a perfect
distribution of material goods. But that is not the only
way to think about equality. Equality is basic. There’s a sort of moral
dimension, as I mentioned. You could talk about
political equality. You could talk about
social equality. I think we should talk
economic egalitarianism, but that’s a different thing from strict material
equality and so forth. So the important, the really
important point though is that if you have a democracy,
you have to have it resting onto ideals linked
together, freedom and equality understood both
as human moral equality, and political equality. And when those things are linked
together then you have the question of what else do you
need to support a structure of free and equal citizenship
and free institutions. And then I think that’s where questions come
in about economics. And I do think, as many
have over time argued that you need a strong
middle-class economy. You do you need egalitarian
economic outcomes in order to support political equality. But you end up then
seeing a different way of putting the pieces and
parts together for the concepts of freedom and equality if you
start by focusing on how freedom and political equality are very, very tightly linked
to each other. Did that answer your question?>>Colleen Shogan: Yes, Yeah, and this will be our last
question before we go to the audience, but a
lot of people are worried, are concerned about
widening gulfs of inequality in the United States today
in a number of respects. How can the Declaration help
us address these problems, or try to solve some
of these problems that present themselves?>>Danielle Allen: So, there’s
a lot to say about that. Let me just try to think which of the many things I
might say or do I want to say. I mean, I do want to say
out loud that I’m glad that we’re hearing the sort of
DACA protests today because, 11 million people without rights
to citizenship who have lived in this country and function
productively as parts of our community, that is
basically the kind of situation, of lack of access
to political power that the colonists felt
themselves experiencing in relationship to England. And so we have to
recognize the basic kind of human symmetry of that. And I think my own view is from
within our traditions we have to be responsive to that
and acknowledge the need for securing of rights that
DACA, young people have. So, I just want to
say that out loud. I think that their
story, actually is a lot like what our story was. And none of us should want
to live in a society that, from my point of view,
we shouldn’t want to live in a society that has 11
million people with no access to political equality. That’s a sort of
violation of the principles about human rights that
we, ourselves articulated in the very beginning. That’s a separate question of
the question of what it means to have a boarder,
enforce a boarder. This is not an open
boarders argument, you can separate those
two things, okay. I won’t go into that now, that’s
a long complicated conversation. But then the other thing to say is I always think it’s
really important to point out the job that this
text assigns to citizens, laying the foundation
on principles and organizing the
powers of government, and rethinking that over time. If you look closely, right
go back to the first clause. We hold these truths
to be self-evident that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their created with
certain unalienable rights, that among these
are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You guys notice, it’s
not a complete list. Right, it’s some examples. Among these, have
some examples people, get your thinking juices going. And then that means the question
is to us, what do we think of as the basic rights that
we ought to be securing. And there obviously we’re
having a really big conversation about health, does health
belong on this list of rights? I think it is something that
we should be thinking about. But then the last
thing I will say is that what this document does
is make the case that in order to build a society of free and equal self-governing
citizens you really have to understand how you organize
the powers of government. And that has to be working and
workable in order for citizens to have the kind of agency
the Declaration promises. Our institutions are
obviously not functioning. I mean you guys like to sit
here in Washington and you live in Washington so, I don’t
know what your relationship is to everything around here, but
for the rest of us who aren’t in DC, we’re like it’s just
not working people, okay. It’s just broken. We all know that. It’s a basic thing
everybody knows. And I think we don’t need to know anything
else other than that. You know congress’
approval rating hit 9% in I think it was
2010, and then it was like 11%, it’s about 20% now. But despite everybody’s
vocabulary about coequal branches
of government. The legislature is
the first branch. It is article one for a reason. Because it is the
branch responsible for articulating the
will of the people. If your first branch’s
approval rating is at best 20% and down to 9%, it’s broken. It’s just broken. And there’s lots of
reasons we could talk about why it’s broken,
and how and so forth. But the fact of the matter is, we do actually need
to address it. And it’s we who have
to address it. We the people, not any
particular politician. So, from my point of view,
any single person running for office should have as their
absolutely first policy domain democracy policy,
or democracy agenda. How do we actually re-organized
institutions of government, increase the size of the house, in congressional elections
have rank choice voting in multimember districts,
complete the spread to all 50 states of
independent, nonpartisan, or bipartisan redistricting
commissions. That’s a starter set that would
make a tremendous difference for the functioning
of our institutions. But the point I’m really making
is democracy itself should be a policy area at the top
of our policy agenda. It should come before
economic policy. It should come before
healthcare. It should even come
before climate. When you’re sort of going
through what are the list of sort of top priority
policy areas. Democracy should be
our first policy area.>>Colleen Shogan: I’m sure
we have some questions form the audience.>>Speaker 1: So, hi. So your last point reminded
me that you a have a book on democracy in the digital
age and I was wondering if you could just
connect those issues up and elaborate a bit
on that new book.>>Danielle Allen: Sure,
thank you for your question. So, this is a super
important point. And it relates to this
issue of what is the work that we the people need to do
to rebuild our institutions. So we are generally experiencing like a pretty unpleasant
phenomenon like of massive polarization,
or tribalism, or my favorite word,
factionalism. Okay, that’s like the
old-fashioned word from this period. And the folks who designed
the constitution were worried about faction. They considered it one
of the greatest dangers to the long-term health
of any given democracy. They thought they
devised solutions and Madison articulates
his view of the solution in federalist ten, the tenth
federalist paper, right. And we all know that
paper but it actually had, the solution had two parts. We tend to focus on one part. So, that’s the paper
in which he argues that representation is a
solution to factionalism. The idea is that people’s
opinions will be filtered through representatives who are
moderating and synthesize views and you can get a kind
of common good outlook. But as I said, that’s
only half of his argument. The other half of his
argument was that the thing that would make representation
work was geographic dispersal. Okay, literally the physical
extent of the country and the fact that it’s sort of
divided up by the mountains, and rivers, and things
like that. The result of that
geographic dispersal is that it would be very hard for
people with extreme opinions to find each other
and coordinate. Exactly. You could only go
through a representative. So, social media has
actually disappeared one of the founding pillars of
our representational system. Okay, so the premise was
geographic dispersal would make representation work. It would be a forcing
factor that would lead to effective operations of
our system of representation. All right. It’s gone. It’s just gone. So, that means if we want
representation to work again, we actually have to rethink
the design of the institutions in a really fundamental way. So that’s just one
example of how the sort of digital universe is affecting
politics in our present age. But I do put a lot of weight on
what social media has created with regard to the
sort of dysfunction of our contemporary politics. And so, thinking about you
know what’s the right kind of public interest mandate
for social media platforms. But then also more importantly
for me how do we think about the relationship of that
to representation as such, that seems to be where we
have to do the work so.>>Colleen Shogan: We have
time for one more question.>>Speaker 2: Thank
you very much. Thanks for your time. I’m curious if going sort
of back to the close reading at the very end whether safety and happiness would have been
seen as at odds at the time kind of going back to
contemporary concerns, we’re thinking a little bit
with sort of war on terror, surveillance, etcetera, I think
there’s now sometimes talk, at least political rhetoric about trade-offs
between those two.>>Danielle Allen:
That’s a great question. I mean I think that’s where
the hard work of politics is. So in some sense safety and happiness are
not fancy concepts. And they’re an English
translation of the Roman idea that the purpose of politics
weas [foreign word], the health and well-being of the people. It’s the preamble
of the constitution, which invokes welfare is
the same concept basically. And you know they’re sort of
captured by very basic ideas like Jean-Jacques
Rousseau argued that you could tell whether a
society was prospering according to whether its population
was growing. Like that simple to know whether or not things were going
well or not for society. So there’s a kind of broad
concept of well-being for people that’s intended here. And then, yes, I mean
you’re exactly right. I mean people have to debate
over time which exact sort of calculations or trade-offs
count as achieving well-being. So, I don’t think it’s a
sort of, it’s not a problem that there’s a tension
between safety and liberty. What is a problem is when
a people is no longer in a position to debate that
and achieve compromises. That’s when you have a problem. But to be able to choose
a trade-off and to expect to adjust over time, that’s
the sort of necessary work of democratic politics.>>Colleen Shogan: Terrific. Danielle will be selling books, copies of your book
on the Declaration. Right next door in 113. And Danielle will
be signing books. So, you can come by
and chat with her. But please join me in
thanking Danielle Allen for a terrific talk today. [ Applause ]

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