Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
by danielle allen
liveright, 320 pages, $27.95

In Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen provides an informative, line-by-line, sometimes word-by-word, philosophical interpretation of the founders’ document. Allen offers the case that the Declaration of Independence is a syllogism for political equality, rather than a manifesto of unlinked assertions. “Premise 1,” she writes: “All people have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Premise 2: Properly constituted government is necessary to their securing their rights. Premise 3: [All people have a right to whatever is necessary to secure what they have a right to.] Conclusion: All people have a right to a properly constituted government.”

Allen argues that the famous first premise “all men are created equal” does not refer simply to white male property owners. She notes that the original draft written by Jefferson contains a paragraph about the violation of the natural rights of slaves. Allen writes, “Jefferson talks about markets where ‘MEN,’ which he capitalizes, are bought and sold. In other words, he is calling the slaves ‘men.’ And when he does this, he can’t mean males only, because those markets were for men, women, and children. So when, in the second sentence, he writes that all men are created equal, he must mean all people—whatever their color, sex, age, or status.” Southern confederates during the Civil War era rejected the Declaration precisely on account of its inclusivity of all ­human beings.

Human equality clearly ­cannot rest on qualities such as wealth, virtue, and intelligence, which are ­unequally distributed among us. So, what is it that makes all of us equal?

The Declaration grounds our status as beings with rights to life, liberty, and happiness in an endowment furnished for us by the Creator. Noting that many atheists are committed to human equality, Allen does not want to ground equal human status in an endowment from God. So she provides a number of other possible rationales, such as that we all equally seek to live, to be free, and to be happy. Although almost all human beings do want these things, some seek to kill themselves or to sell themselves into slavery. Elsewhere, Allen justifies human equality in terms of the drive to political speech and the natural powers of the human mind, but these rationales exclude the very young as well as the mentally handicapped.

Allen suggests yet another ground for human equality in that “each of us is the best judge of her own happiness.” Yet if Aristotle is right about happiness as an objective state, the child, the addict, the insane, and the vicious misjudge what makes for happiness. Psychologists such as Daniel Gilbert and Sonja Lyubomirsky point out that even normal people characteristically misjudge what will make them subjectively happy. Despite an ambitious survey of possible justifications, the ground of human equality remains ultimately unexplained in Our Declaration.

Christopher Kaczor is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and is the author of A Defense of Dignity.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of First Things.

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