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.