Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Freedom, Equality, and the Declaration of Independence.


This past Saturday Americans like me observed the 239th year of our nation's declaration of independence from British rule. We talk a lot about the document without spending too much time trying to understand its message.  Could it be that this document speaks not only of liberty or freedom, but also of equality?

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR last week and caught Diane's interview with Dr. Danielle Allen, a professor at Princeton University and the author of a new book titled: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.  I was fascinated by her reading of the Declaration, a reading inspired by an evening adult class she had been teaching. These adult students worked all day and then spent their evenings in class. In the course of their close reading of the text, they helped her discover a truth often neglected -- that truth is that the Declaration isn't just about liberty, it is also about equality. But we have neglected that message.

Because we have accepted the view that there is a trade-off between equality and liberty, we think we have to choose. Lately, we have come, as a people, to choose liberty. Equality has always been the more frail twin, but it has now become particularly vulnerable. If one tracks presidential rhetoric from the last two decades, one will find that invocations of liberty significantly predominate over praise songs for equality. This is true for candidates and presidents from both parties. [Allen, Danielle (2014-06-23). Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, (p. 22). Liveright. Kindle Edition.]
A little further on in an early chapter she makes the importance of this seeming trade-off for us.

 Political philosophers have generated the view that equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other. As a public, we have swallowed this argument whole. We think we are required to choose between freedom and equality. Our choice in recent years has tipped toward freedom. Under the general influence of libertarianism, both parties have abandoned our Declaration; they have scorned our patrimony. 
Such a choice is dangerous. If we abandon equality, we lose the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place. I for one cannot bear to see the ideal of equality pass away before it has reached its full maturity. I hope I am not alone. [Allen, Danielle (2014-06-23). Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (p. 24). Liveright. Kindle Edition.] 
Did Thomas Jefferson or the other founders fully understand the implications of their words? Perhaps not, but the question isn't whether they fully comprehended what they were affirming, but what the Declaration means for us today. That's why she titles the book Our Declaration. It is our patrimony. Liberty without equality is still-born. Thus, libertarianism, which focuses on individualism does not fully comprehend the vision outlined in the Declaration. True freedom isn't present unless everyone has access to it.  And as has been pointed out in various forums, it's not only "equal opportunity" that counts, but making sure that everyone has access to the benefits of liberty, and that requires access to education, jobs, etc.  I highlighted the second sentence in the second paragraph for this reason. Without a commitment to equality we lose the bond that makes us a community.  

I've only just begun reading the book, but Dr. Allen has challenged me to re-read and re-envision the Declaration of Independence. 

2 comments:

John McCauslin said...

You ask whether Jefferson and those who participated in drafting and adopting the Declaration of Independence were aware of the equalitarianism implications of the instrument. I think that Jefferson, Franklin and a few of the others knew full well what they were saying. Not that they could see ahead to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s or even the movement for women's rights and the rights of Native Americans and the LGBTQ+ community, but they knew that their words transcended the struggle to be free of King George and the British Parliament.

They understood themselves to be at the forefront of the Enlightenment, Feanklin had spent much time in England being feted by the highest levels of British society as a true Renaissance man. Jefferson was in his own right a Renaissance man, being incredibly well read. During the 1780’s Jefferson would spend much time in France debating and socializing with the men who would lead the French Revolution, actualized by if not modeled on American revilutionary principle, and which itself exalted the immortal catchphrase, "Liberty, Fraternity and Equality." The drafters of the Declaration saw the American Revolution as something more than a parochial struggle against a single tyrant, but as the first step in a new chapter in human history, the abandonment of monarchy, and the creation of genuine democratic republic. They knew this, and their actions show that they were aware that future generations would well remember them and their actions.

What insurgency up until then had ever taken the time to form a committee to write a "Declaration"? And to begin it with words such a transcendent phrase as "When in the course of human events..." They knew this document would take on a life of its own.

Did they fully comprehend the implications of their proclamation of equalitarianism? Do we today, within our own context? I think they at least understood what it portended for the institution of slavery. I doubt that they were comfortable with the implications and were they quite satisfied with simply proclaiming the aspiration and leaving it to future generations to work out the details. We know they could not personally accept Africans and Native Americans as equals. But as much as they personally couldn't accept Africans and Native Americans as their equals, I think they were aware that as these groups were human beings, and they anticipated that their equalitarian proclamation must one day take them into account.

I suspect however that few if any of them ever questioned whether women would ever be a consideration. Their thinking was based the exaltation of the Noble Savage, conjoined with the Edenic helpmate, Eve, who was created by Nature's God to be forever passive, and forever subordinate. Hence, Professor Allen's use of the term "patriarchy" seems especially apt.

Robert Cornwall said...

John, I've only read a few chapters, but I think you will appreciate her message that we are mistaken if we think that the Declaration is only about liberty. Without equality the liberty we crave is of little value.