HistoryOctober 27, 2015
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia declared the United States a free and independent nation. Author Danielle Allen examines the Declaration of Independence, the document’s current day relevance, and the relationship between freedom and equality in her book entitled, Our Declaration.
“The Declaration is nothing less than a very short introduction to political philosophy. It teaches us to ask: How are things going for us? Are we living well, this group of people to which I somehow belong? These are the fundamental questions of political philosophy.
“At the heart of the Declaration are, as I’ve said, two ideas: equality and freedom. What is this equality that the Declaration is about and where is it? What and where is this freedom?
“These days to many of us think that to say two things are ‘equal’ is to say that they are ‘the same.’ Consequently, we think the assertion that ‘all men are created equal,’ is patently absurd. Everyone knows that Bill Gates is richer, Halle Berry better-looking, and Albert Einstein smarter than virtually all of us. And, of course, Bill and Albert are not as good-looking as Halle, and Halle and Albert are not as rich as Bill, and so on. Everybody is bested by someone at something.
“But ‘equal’ and ‘same’ are not synonyms. To be ‘the same’ is to be ‘identical.’ But to be ‘equal’ is to have an equivalent degree of some specific quality or attribute. We can be equal in height although we are not the same as people. In what regard, exactly, does the Declaration take us all to be equal to one another?
“The matter of freedom is similarly obscure. There is the question of whose freedom? And from what? Or to do what? And with respect to what power? Is it freedom form interference or from domination that we seek? Aren’t all of our lives interfered with by law, after all? Yet these interfering laws keep us free from domination by others; they protect us from exposure to arbitrary treatment and so from uncertainty and subordination.
“Aren’t we also constrained by the necessity of feeding, housing, and clothing ourselves and our families? Yet in meeting these necessities we acquire the capacity to act freely on a broader canvas.
“There is, of course, our freedom to vote. But does that freedom translate into any real control? How many of us feel in control of political decisions made at the state and national level? When property taxes go up or decisions are made to reduce investment in education, do we feel that those are our decisions? And should we even feel in control of decisions that constrain our friends, neighbors, and passerby? Should they feel in control of decisions that constrain us?
“These days too many of us have no idea what to make of the concept of equality; we are also confused about freedom. I routinely hear from students that the ideals of freedom and equality contradict each other. The Declaration argues the opposite case: that equality is the bedrock of freedom.
“The Declaration starts its argument about equality in its very first sentence; it follows this salvo with the famous statement that all men are ‘created equal’; from there it courses onward to amplify the treatment of equality with the complaints against King George finally, it flows out into its concluding arguments about equality when the signers of the Declaration pledge themselves and their states to one another. To understand the argument, we have to pass slowly through each of its phases: the opening sentence; the important argument about human equality; the remarkable indictment of King George as a tyrant who violates even the basic principles of reciprocity; and the concluding pledge of mutuality…
“There are five facets of the ideal equality for which the Declaration argues. The first facet, as we are about to see, describes the kind of equality that exists when neither of two parties can dominate the other. The second facet concerns the importance to humankind of having equal access to the tool of government, the most important instrument each of us has for securing the future. Something has gone wrong when, as scholars have recently shown, policy outcomes routinely track the stated preferences of the affluent but not those of the middle class or the poor. The third facet concerns the value of egalitarian approaches to the development of collective intelligence. Experts are most valuable when they work hand in hand with a well-educated general population capable of supplying useful social knowledge to deliberations. The fourth facet concerns egalitarian practices of reciprocity. How well do citizens do at thinking of themselves as receiving benefactions from their fellow citizens and owing them benefits in return? And the fifth facet has to do with the equality entailed in sharing ownership of public life and in co-creating our common world. When we worry, for instance, that young people don’t vote or are apathetic, we recognize that we’ve failed to cultivate in them a sense of having an equal ownership stake in what we make together.
“Yet as important as the argument about equality is, it is not the whole of what we get from the Declaration. There is much more here, too. The argument about equality is set in a stunningly moving meditation on what it takes for people to find their way forward through conditions of uncertainty, under the press of necessity, into a future in which they can flourish.”
Danielle Allen. Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (New York: Liverlight, 2014), 107-109.
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.