I was born in Ireland, not America. This country’s habit of conducting its national conversation through its founders and founding documents still seems a little strange to me. The closest Irish equivalent to the Declaration of Independence, the Proclamation of the Republic, has a vexed status in Irish historical memory. This was in part because the republican promises made were never quite delivered on, in part because of Ireland’s civil war, where the losers declared themselves the true heirs of the Proclamation and took up arms on its behalf, and in part because the proclaimers have not been dead sufficiently long to acquire the incorruptible odor of sanctity. Instead of a civic religion centered on my country’s founders, we grew up in the gaps of a conversation that never quite took form, tacit and tactical silences that carefully skirted a complicated history, and, rising up from somewhere below, the sweet aroma of bodies that hadn’t been buried quite deeply enough.

America’s relationship with its moment of founding is very different. The founders and founding documents such as the Constitution are venerated as having been guided by the hand of Destiny, if not God. This notoriously kitschy painting of Jesus holding the US Constitution wouldn’t have excited nearly as much attention and snark had it not captured a relatively common set of beliefs. Yet they are also objects of contestation. People contest the nature of the founders’ revelation as a way of arguing for how they believe America should be.

In One Nation Under God, his recent book on the relationship between corporations and the idea of “Christian America,” Kevin Kruse talks about one effort to use the Declaration of Independence for political purposes. He describes how the Spiritual Mobilization movement used the 175th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing in 1951 to promote their cause. The movement created a new Committee to Proclaim Liberty to co-ordinate their celebrations, whose members included Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, various media figures (including Ronald Reagan), and a wide variety of corporate leaders.

According to Kruse, the Committee “focused its attention on encouraging Americans to mark the holiday with public readings of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence,” in a conveniently truncated and interpolated form. This allowed the committee organizers to reframe the Declaration as a “purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government,” cutting out the parts about King George’s unwillingness to assent to laws that might suggest a legitimate role for a legitimate government. Full page newspaper ads commissioned by the Committee’s corporate sponsors exhorted ordinary Americans to distrust the government and trust God, more or less in that order. Ministers were encouraged by cash prizes to write and deliver sermons on “Freedom under God.” Many of them appear to have used the opportunity to inveigh against our fall from the prelapsarian world of the Founding Fathers, into a degraded state of welfarism, impiety and imminent government socialism.

What is most interesting to me (as a latecomer to the American conversation) about Danielle Allen’s book, is that it sets out to do something very different to Kruse’s businessmen and eminences grises. It isn’t simply that she’s inspired by a different vision of politics, although she very much is; she deplores how the kind of libertarianism that Kruse describes have led to a pinched and vexatious reading of the Declaration. It’s that her understanding of the relationship between America’s founders and its politics today is fundamentally different. While she describes Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others, she doesn’t invoke them as patriarchal figures of authority, imbued by providence with timeless wisdom. Instead, she sees them as (important) figures in a conversation, that continues to today. The project of the Declaration is not a state of grace that we should aspire to return to. Instead, it’s one moment in a messy, complicated and yet worthwhile political project.

Allen describes the arguments of the Declaration at length, going through it word by word. She admires it greatly and repeatedly, speaking of its beauty, while also setting out to recover a specific reading of equality from it. The principles on which the Declaration justifies the separation of the United States from Britain are principles that can justify equality between human beings. They are also principles that can be debased (she discusses how the colonists’ desire to have a state that was ‘separate and equal’ to the other great states of the world became the ‘separate but equal’ of racial segregation.

Yet Allen’s book wants to do more than simply to describe the ideas set out in the Declaration. It wants to reclaim the Declaration for modern Americans and to incorporate it into our everyday democratic conversation. Treating the words of the founders as a given revelation, as American ideologues of varying politics do, introduces another kind of inequality, one in which the voices of men who have been dead for two centuries necessarily prevail over the voices of men and women today. Making the Declaration into “Our” Declaration requires spadework.

This is perhaps why the book, after reprinting the Declaration of Independence in full, doesn’t turn immediately to exegesis, or a history of its composition. Instead, it starts with personal history. First, a discussion of teaching the Declaration to her night students, working students who “generally entered into the text thinking of it as something that did not belong to them [representing] instead institutions and power, everything that solidified a world that had, as life had turned out, delivered them so much grief, so much to overcome.” And then, a description of Allen’s family history, and inheritance from both African American and WASP ancestors. Together, these provide Allen with the understanding that the Declaration is part of her “patrimony.” Allen is careful with her choice of words, and patrimony is freighted with meaning. On the one hand, it is something that has come from your father or fathers (pater). On the other, it is something that is now unmistakably yours. To claim it is to accept your relationship with your fathers but also to take what they have given you, and turn it to your own needs and purposes. You inherit your patrimony when your father is dead, and no longer stands to tell you what to do with it.

While Allen admires the Declaration, she treats it as an ordinary text, not a sacred one. She compares it to a writ for divorce, and to a memo, documents that can be very important but that do not typically smack of the numinous. It is also a problematic text that emerged from problematic political processes. Original language by Jefferson that condemned the King’s role in encouraging slavery was struck out in its entirety. The Declaration’s patrimony is not simply its principles, but its status as a text that emerged from argument and compromise, and that generates them in turn. A key aspect of equality, for Allen, is the capacity to participate in democratic conversation. She treats Timothy Matlack, the man who drew up the manuscript of the Declaration as a full participant in the writing of it – his decisions guided the flow and emphasis of the final document. People wove together a rough consensus which reflected their biases and flaws, as well as the vexing and messy process of reaching compromise, but which also reflected the democratic advantages of working things through. As Allen describes it:

the Declaration is as much about how to solve the central conundrum of democracy – how to make sure that public actions can count as the will of the people – as about anything else. It is about how to ensure that public words belong to us all. The fact that these early wordsmiths were men – and, for that matter, white – has never kept me from wanting to learn what they knew about words and power. From them we can learn how to use words to engender the actions, build the institutions, and clarify the principles that belong to a democratic people. I believe that the Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement – such a maddening quantity of group writing – are necessary for justice. The argument of the Declaration justifies the process by which the Declaration came to be. It itself explains why the art of democratic writing is necessary.

The Declaration cannot be well understood without understanding the process through which it came into being; the process itself is justified by the Declaration. Both the text and the process are commingled in the heritage of Americans today. Indeed, implicit in Allen’s arguments (as they build on Aristotle and Waldron) is the notion that we are far better able to build on the kinds of processes of creating valuable democratic analysis than the original creators of the Declaration were. They drew upon the perspectives of many people (most of whom shared a common gender, race and rough class position). So long as we take democratic equality seriously, we can draw upon many more perspectives and accordingly reach a better understanding of our situation.

This is why Allen’s argument is structurally different from that of Kruse’s businessmen, and that of a myriad other efforts to enlist America’s founders and founding documents on one side or another of the controversies that define the nation. It surely advocates a strong and specific reading of the Declaration and its meaning. But it does not seek to invoke the Declaration as a kind of ersatz holy writ, distinct in kind from the kinds of compromises that we seek to forge today. Instead, it depicts it as intimately bound up in the process of ordinary politics, both being an outcome and source of the endless, and often frustrating and tedious democratic politicking that allow us to progress, inch by painful inch.

I’ll leave it to others who are better versed to parse through the relationship between these arguments and America’s history of race (as a blow-in from a very different country I feel unqualified to discuss these questions intelligently). Instead, I want to close by highlighting another complexity. Allen begins – and ends – the book with a strong denunciation of current readings of the Declaration that stress liberty rather than equality. The part of her book that I haven’t discussed in as much detail – the detailed sentence by sentence discussion of the content of the Declaration – is intended to support a very different reading (to my eyes convincingly). Yet if we are to agree with Allen on process, the pro-liberty interpretations which she disagrees with are part of the warp and weft of the democratic conversation through which people use the Declaration to argue about America. What is wrong on one level (as long as it is not entirely misguided) may be valuable on another, providing a little bit of the diversity of understanding that allows us to puzzle through difficult political questions.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.