2017-08-07

Book Review: "Our Declaration" by Danielle Allen

I recently got to read Our Declaration by Danielle Allen. It's a book that carefully goes through every word, sentence, and passage of the US Declaration of Independence from 1776 to argue that the broad notion of equality of all people, not just of white landowning males, was embedded in the text even then (and are not simply hopeful modern reinterpretations), and that such a notion of equality is a precursor, rather than subjugate, to liberty (the latter point being more commonly found in today's political culture).

The first few chapters seem rather distracting, because while it's nice to hear about the author's own passion for and history with this subject, those plus the next few chapters obscure the structure of the argument of the book; only when the author starts to analyze the text of the Declaration starting from the beginning of the first sentence does the book really pick up and the structure of the argument of the book actually become self-evidently clear (which is in some sense appropriate, given that the author herself took time to conclude that this methodical and structured reading of the Declaration is the correct one, so it would likely take others quite a bit of time to reach the same conclusion too). Most of the book is structured as a detailed, slow, careful, methodical exegesis of the text of the Declaration in the service of a defense of equality as a companion, not subjugate, to liberty; its drawing forth philosophical arguments and examples through only the text and the immediate history surrounding the drafting of the text, rather than focusing too much on the broader events surrounding that time, makes this a compelling alternative view of the Declaration, and seems carefully crafted to essentially be a liberal form of the originalism and textualism espoused by conservative jurists today (of the mould of Antonin Scalia), so for these reasons, I rather enjoyed the argumentative style of the book. While there are some parts of the book that may seem repetitive, given that the Declaration is covered from start to finish in order, the structure of the Declaration is almost like a fractal, and I appreciated the author making this structure evident: at many different scales (whether within a sentence or over the entire text itself), arguments emerge like that of people having the right to good government, that bad government does not respect those rights, and that people therefore have the right to alter their government in such cases.

There are a few main criticisms I have of this book. Throughout the book, the author argues that the essence of democratic government is that everyone has a qualitatively equal capability of judging their own happiness and considering their past and present to then judge their own futures, and that these come together through communication, giving the example of how the drafting of the Declaration required the revolutionary framers to rely not only on their own judgment but mostly upon the experiences of ordinary people from all of the American colonies. While the author presents this as a model of democratic information-collection going into democratic writing, I think the confirmation bias inherent in this approach is actually the main flaw of the book: the author tries to be too clever in separating qualitative from quantitative statements of equality, forcing her to sweep under the rug the issues of demagoguery & mob mentality overwhelming critical thinking (especially in conjunction with lack of education among large groups of people), as well as of different marginalized groups (whether poor white people, black slaves, or native peoples) perhaps feeling differently about continued British rule than those who were more willing to share negative feelings therein — these issues of mob rule, factionalism, and guaranteed rights would be fleshed out more in the Constitution, but they are not so self-evident in the Declaration as the author seems to suggest. Furthermore, the author argues that the dissonance between the lofty ideals of equality in the Declaration and the brutality of chattel slavery and genocide committed upon black and native peoples, respectively, is only due to the lack of willpower and desire at that time to bring those lofty ideals into concrete action applicable to black and native peoples, and that would come later; while that may be empirically true in a historical sense, from a philosophical standpoint it seems strange to give the revolutionaries such a pass on those issues given that the author argues in the same passage that the Confederacy was founded in the Civil War using words that made explicit the opposition to notions of equality in the Declaration (thus justifying a more expansive reading of equality from the Declaration even in those days), and given that the author takes care to point out the many drafts of the Declaration that explicitly speak out against chattel slavery and brutality in war. Additionally, people complain about those who say one thing and do another, exactly because those who put forth a call to action can be reasonably be expected to be most likely to take such action, so such dissonance makes one wonder whether such action is really feasible at all, or whether those calling upon others to act in some way but themselves act differently are trying to exploit a loophole (like dehumanizing black people to justify their continued enslavement as being consistent with the notion of human equality). Moreover, while the author does point to several drafts denouncing slavery to mitigate the reality of slavery in the face of the ideals of the Declaration, there seems to be no such argument with respect to women or native peoples, and the latter is especially troublesome given that the Declaration does make a few extremely negative references to native peoples (appropriating land, or fighting "savages").

Overall, while my criticisms do make me feel a little less certain about some of the specific arguments promulgated in the book, I did rather enjoy the methodical textual analysis with only the most relevant external information injected when appropriate. I should admit that I read through this book perhaps a little faster than the author wants readers to read it, but having gotten a new view of the Declaration, I'd be more inclined to reread both the Declaration and this book at a more deliberate pace at a later date. The arguments are interesting and clear, so I'd recommend this to anyone who's interested in the subject, especially those who may be feeling a bit down on the notion that the US is a country for them too. Follow the jump to see a few more of my specific thoughts about this book.

It's particularly interesting how much of the Declaration could be seen as somewhat representative of modern-day problems with the US political system.
The refusal of "Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good" seems reminiscent of the gridlock in Congress over the last several decades, though in the 18th century the grievance was against unrepresentative government in the colonies, while now Congress is in principle made of elected representatives of the people themselves, and the gridlock is ultimately the responsibility of the people in some sense.
The refusal to pass laws "for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature" seems to be mirrored in the current debates over gerrymandering and the unequal representative power in small versus large states even in the House (Wyoming's single representative is many times more powerful than many of California's representatives); while it's true that the issues of gerrymandering and unequal representation came up soon after the Declaration in the following few decades (including the drafting of the Constitution), no one then could have seen what the country's demographics and raw population numbers would be like now.
The obstruction of "Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners" seems to mirror current debates over citizenship for legal residents who are foreign nationals (i.e. green card holders).
The protection of troops, "by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States" seems to mirror current concern over police conduct and accountability within the police force & in the eyes of the law, especially when police forces do not demographically reflect the communities they are supposed to serve.
The deprivation of the "benefits of Trial by Jury" also seems to mirror concerns over plea bargains and related things, though in principle, these were supposed to have been taken care of from the beginning in the Bill of Rights appended to the Constitution.
Of course, there are many differences too. For one, the framers of the Declaration were generally not members of marginalized racial minorities; this is most clearly reflected in some of the grievances speaking very negatively of native peoples. For another, as I mentioned earlier, the government then was ruled by a tyrannical unaccountable king, whereas now, the government is comprised of elected representatives and an elected president who are supposed to be accountable to their voters, though the levels of accountability vary. Thus, if a disaffected marginalized group today wanted to use the Declaration as a rallying cry for change in their condition, it isn't clear to whom they could direct their outrage, as there is no potent singular tyrannical figure like King George III. The author actually makes this point too, noting that some of the grievances in the declaration were actually acts of Parliament, yet the framers of the Declaration wanted to have a more obvious figure to direct the anger of the disaffected colonists. The deliberate omission of Parliament, to keep focus on the king, was actually meant to get Parliament and the British people on their side, but the framers' failed entreaties to the emotional and familial bonds with the British people led them to treat the British people equally with other peoples of the world despite the original familial bonds. Thus, this notion of strategically driving a wedge between groups in power may be key to understanding how the arguments of the Declaration (though presumably not the act of violent revolution itself) would be a template for other groups marginalized by those in power seeking redress for their suffering.

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