In just 1,337 words, the Declaration of Independence
altered the course of history. Written in 1776, it is the most profound
document in the history of government since the Magna Carta, signed nearly 800
years ago in 1215. Yet despite its paramount importance, the Declaration,
curiously, is rarely read from start to finish—much less understood.
Troubled by the fact that so few Americans actually
know what it says, Danielle Allen, a political philosopher renowned for her
work on justice and citizenship, set out to explore the arguments of the
Declaration, reading it with both adult night students and University of
Chicago undergraduates. Keenly aware that the Declaration is riddled with
contradictions—liberating some while subjugating slaves and Native
Americans—Allen and her students nonetheless came to see that the Declaration
makes a coherent and riveting argument about equality. They found not a
historical text that required memorization, but an animating force that could
and did transform the course of their everyday lives.
In an “uncommonly elegant, incisive, and often
poetic primer on America’s cardinal text,” Our Declaration now brings
these insights to the general reader, illuminating the “three great themes of
the Declaration: equality, liberty, and the abiding power of language” (David
M. Kennedy). Vividly evoking the colonial world between 1774 and 1777, Allen
describes the challenges faced by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin
Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—the “Committee of Five” who had
to write a document that reflected the aspirations of a restive population and
forge an unprecedented social contract. Although the focus is usually on
Jefferson, Allen restores credit not only to John Adams and Richard Henry Lee
but also to clerk Timothy Matlack and printer Mary Katherine Goddard.
Allen also restores the astonishing text of the
Declaration itself. Its list of self-evident truths does not end, as so many
think, with our individual right to the “pursuit of happiness” but with the
collective right of the people to reform government so that it will “effect their
safety and happiness.” The sentence laying out the self-evident truths leads us
from the individual to the community—from our individual rights to what we can
achieve only together, as a community constituted by bonds of equality.
Challenging so much of our conventional political wisdom, Our Declaration
boldly makes the case that we cannot have freedom as individuals without
equality among us as a people.
With its cogent analysis and passionate advocacy, Our
Declaration thrillingly affirms the continuing relevance of America’s
founding text, ultimately revealing what democracy actually means and what it
asks of us. Download and start listening now!