A slow and careful reading of America’s founding document.
The Declaration of Independence, itself the product of many hands, addressed everybody: “a candid world” the signers presumed capable of judging the facts and approving the reasons that impelled the colonies to take the fateful step of separating from Britain. Allen (Social Science/Institute for Advanced Study; Why Plato Wrote, 2010, etc.) insists we take the signatories at their word and that we need not be steeped in history to comprehend a text that works simultaneously as an eloquent statement of philosophical principle and as a utilitarian memorandum. For more than a decade, the author has taught the Declaration to elite students and to adults in night school, and she maintains that “a willing mind and life experience” are sufficient for understanding the document. As if conducting a friendly conversation, sentence by sentence, she takes readers through all the text’s words, and she proves a patient, informed and friendly guide. By subordinating history—although she admits some history is required for a fuller understanding of the colonists’ list of grievances against King George III—and focusing on the philosophical, she easily demonstrates her thesis: that liberty and equality, “the twinned foundations of democracy,” are not necessarily in tension. Rather, she argues, they are inextricably linked, and if anything, “equality has precedence over freedom.” Readers prepared to quarrel with Allen’s judgment will need first to acknowledge her careful definition of the ideal of equality (scrupulously extracted from the Declaration’s own words) and to commit to a similarly rigorous textual analysis. Her dedication to slow reading forces us to pause and reconsider words we thought we knew—“self-evident,” “created equal”—words that eerily resonate—“swarms of officers”—and words whose full definitions continue to unfold more than 200 years after the nation’s birth.
At once simple, sharp and deftly executed.