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How to Do Things with Words

This is an impassioned book about the Declaration of Independence. It comes from specific personal and pedagogical experiences, as its author, a classicist and political theorist at Princeton, winsomely reports.

Danielle Allen employs several techniques, some old, some new, in engaging and expositing her book’s central object: what she calls a close, “sentence by sentence” reading of the document, one that sometimes lingers over the meaning of a single term but that also draws upon modern theories of the uses to which language can be put. But while the methods are specific, the aim is quite grand and ambitious: to make the Declaration “our Declaration,” with “us” being not just all Americans, of whatever race or socioeconomic condition, but all humanity.

The Declaration has stirred Allen mightily. She describe teaching it as a transformative experience, and she has responded with all of her being, as a scholar, a citizen, and a human being. This is engaged scholarship in a fulsome sense.

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality is also clearly conceived and written. Autobiographical revelations of her as a young girl growing up in a remarkably bookish and talkative family, and the young teacher’s recounting of a decade of teaching the Declaration to advantaged and disadvantaged students at the University of Chicago, lay the foundation for the close reading that follows. Seeking to lay bare the “philosophical argument” of the text, she sees the Declaration as a specimen of “political philosophy” that should be read as such.

In keeping with that classical category, she also sees it as a “practical syllogism,” with “principles” and “facts” brought together to conclude with a “judgment.” The facts indicate that King George is a tyrant, and the facts, together with the principles of free government, indicate the moral-political “necessity” of avoiding encroaching despotism by declaring independence. Inspired by such writers as the British philosopher J. L. Austin (How to Do Things with Words, 1962), she further sees the Declaration as a series of community-forming and community-performed “actions” on the part of the signers and other colonists. It is also a community-dissolving action, of course, and Allen works the “divorce” (with Great Britain) and “marriage” (of the states with one another) metaphors rather hard.

But because she believes that even close textual analysis does not account for everything of importance conveyed in the text, she also gives a focused account of the prehistory of its composition, in which “politicos” John Adams and Richard Henry Lee, the Continental Congress and its numerous committees, Thomas Jefferson, of course, and even calligraphers and printers, play important roles. This history is important to her because she wishes to make a central point about the character of democratic thinking and action: it involves a wide array of minds, it’s messy, it occasions large amounts of formal and informal talk, and while it works toward unanimity, whatever is achieved becomes the predicate for more talk.

The two biggest issues surfaced by the contextual reading are the excision of Jefferson’s diatribe against slavery and the slave trade from his original draft (as insisted upon by the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia), and the addition by the Congress itself of two designations of the Deity (“Supreme Judge of the World” and “Divine Providence) that go beyond Jefferson’s “Nature’s God.” (Earlier, the drafting committee had added “Creator” to Jefferson’s handiwork.) The deletion sadly indicates the downsides of democratic writing and decision-making, where the necessity to win votes sometimes wins out over the truth. The additions seem to be a little more confounding for Allen—she is unsure, in the end, what to make of God and religious affirmations in the Declaration.

Like many today, she wants her egalitarianism to rest on a secular foundation. This, one suspects, is the deeper meaning of her oft-used term, “commitment,” which is what human beings do when they cannot affirm a principle on the basis of either faith or reason. Certainly, the naturalistic egalitarian anthropology she teases out of the text is more sketched than demonstrated, and with significant lacunae. For a better treatment of the character of the deity affirmed in the Declaration, one should consult Gregg L. Frazer’s The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (2012) and his useful concept of “theistic rationalism,” halfway between Deism and 18th century Christian orthodoxy. Allen gets close, but her manner of reading precludes her from considering, in a comprehensive view, the Declaration’s teaching about the deity.

In fact her hermeneutics tend to be somewhat piecemeal. At the first occurrence of an important term, she pauses and tries to wring meaning from it, often employing etymology and analogy. However, she hardly ever takes two equally necessary measures: bringing together the various occurrences of the term so as to think about them as a conceptual whole, and looking up the term’s range of meanings in the 18th century.

A key instance of this is her treatment of “state.” She ignores the important features of statehood listed in the final paragraph of the document (“as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to … .”).  A related instance is the Preamble’s phrase “laws of Nature,” which James Stoner has rightly connected with 18th century international law, as well as the natural rights philosophy of John Locke. Allen displays her characteristic ingenuity in coming to terms with the words “state” and “the laws of Nature,” but her constructions—the state as a people organized with the institutions and capacity for collective activity, the laws of nature as one people’s recognition of another’s natural desire to survive, as a necessary condition of being recognized in turn—ignore text and history.

In general, with these lacunae her readings regularly risk displaying the exegete’s creativity more than the patent or plausible meanings of the words on the page. Her analysis is uneasily poised between seeking to be faithful to the original meaning of the text, exploring the meanings she claims to find, and advancing the contemporary political and cultural ideas to which she subscribes.

One telling instance of the latter? Her refusal to say “husband” and “wife” in connection with marriage; she persistently writes “spouses” or “partners.” The capacious egalitarianism that she finds in the text comports with—or is made to comport with— contemporary progressive affirmations.

Allen writes, as she says, “in defense of equality,” and this means reviving our “egalitarian commitment” as a democratic people. “If we abandon equality,” she says, “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” (emphasis added). On the important question of the relationship between freedom and equality, her view is that “If the Declaration can stake a claim to freedom, it is only because it is so clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in its equality” (emphasis added).

This, assuredly, is a heavy burden to place upon equality. It comes as no surprise, then, that her understanding of it is quite substantial and rather complex. For example, while she regularly defines equality as “political equality,” she includes under this rubric widespread “economic opportunity” and the ability to “understand when excessive material inequality undermines broad democratic participation.” Similarly, political equality requires, if not equal educational attainment, the considerable goal of “the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures”—that is, “the capacity of citizens to use language effectively enough to influence the choices we make together.”

This expansive umbrella of meanings of “political equality” (and I’ve only given a partial list) fits with her characterization of equality as an “idea” and an “ideal” that have never been realized on this earth. The mere fact that a people has embraced this idea would seem to be a cause of wonder, but she takes it for granted. Tocqueville knew that Americans’ unusual idealism was unconscious in just this way. Tocqueville warned that democratic idealism, a human world wholly captive to a vision of equality and popular sovereignty, needed to be carefully monitored for its excesses lest a new form of despotism arise.

As for herself, Allen confesses to her “own driven commitment to egalitarian democracy.” Allen’s worries are not Tocqueville’s. Her dire assessment of the declining fortunes of this idea among politicians, parties, and the populace leads her to express perhaps her greatest fear: “I for one cannot bear to see the ideal of equality pass away before it has reached its full maturity.” To which she adds a poignant cri de coeur: “I hope I am not alone.”

While several discrete discussions spell them out, one passage aims to summarize the complex of meanings she finds in, or ascribes to, the concept of equality in the text of the Declaration:

There are five facets of the ideal of equality for which the Declaration argues. The first facet . . . describes the kind of equality that exists when neither of two parties can dominate the other. The second facet concerns the importance to humankind of having equal access to the tool of government, the most important instrument each of us has for securing the future. . . . The third facet concerns the value of egalitarian approaches to the development of collective intelligence. . . . The fourth facet concerns egalitarian practices of reciprocity. . . . And the fifth facet has to do with the equality entailed in sharing ownership of public life and in co-creating our common world.

The paraphrasal language is striking coming from someone who claims a close reading, and it’s hard to think we’re in Jefferson’s or 18th century Americans’ thought-world. Clearly this method of reading has more to it than “close” and “sentence by sentence” commitments, or even single word-focus. Often there are “assumptions” and “implications” and “performative meanings” to unpack, and “images” and “metaphors” to interpret. The twin dangers here, as noted, are overlooking what’s really contained in terms and sentences in accordance with plausible original meanings, and importing her own by eisegesis.

Some of these importations she is aware of. Let’s take as an example the word “nation.” Early on she employs it in speaking of the entity that resulted from the Declaration of Independence. She wants Declaration-America to be both a federation of states and a nation (if only incipiently). Finally, though, she has to acknowledge that Declaration-America was not a nation but, according to the terminology of the text, a “people”: “although their new confederation is not yet a single nation, they have become one people.”

This issue is important for many reasons, all bearing upon the proper understanding of the complex whole envisaged and achieved by the Declaration. Allen notes, but does not develop, the fact that the Continental Congress established, along with the drafting committee for the Declaration, another committee to write articles of confederation. Three men served on both. The congressionally approved Articles of Confederation were submitted to the states for ratification in late 1777 after a year of debate, and clearly established state sovereignty.

I draw the inference that the fledgling Americans were still rather unclear about what flowed from their political principles, and what the union they were forming truly was and entailed. The need for a better understanding of federalism, of e pluribus unum, would make itself felt in the subsequent decade-plus, leading to the Constitutional Convention, and the last-minute (serendipitous or providential) inclusion by Gouverneur Morris of the phrase, “We the People of the United States” in the Preamble, which tipped the scales from sovereign states to a sovereign People that could consider itself a nation.

Of course, it took much subsequent history, including a civil war and three amendments to the Constitution, to confirm and codify that reality. Allen’s deliberately ahistorical reading of the Declaration (which she violates when it suits her purpose), and her present-day commitments, don’t allow her to enter adequately into “the American mind” (Jefferson’s phrase) on display in the text.

In this vein, the most telling piece of eisegesis is the author’s central term, “democracy”—a word not found in the Declaration of Independence. Nor is this an innocent substitution or importation. Allen is not wholly unaware of the fact that the Founders, vigorously debating political regimes and forms, by and large used “democracy” as a term of opprobrium. It was contrasted with “republic”; and even the latter term doesn’t capture the normative thinking about political principles, forms, and ends of those who deliberated on these matters at the time. As the political scientist James W. Ceaser has rightly argued (Liberal Democracy and Political Science, 1990), the American regime is a hybrid, and its proper nomenclature must perforce be compound: liberal democracy; constitutional republic; or partly-federal, partly-national in character.

Allen’s imported term “democracy” already foreshortens one’s thinking, as well as tipping the balance in a certain partisan direction.

My two main objections to this in many ways impressive effort have been clear. The author’s hermeneutics are not quite adequate to their object, and her political commitments predispose her to see things that aren’t in the text or miss those that are. Still and all, it’s important to note the enduring appeal and normative power that emanate from the document that has been called “America’s Scripture.” Partisans of all stripes today acknowledge this power, and that’s a good thing.

It remains to better scholarship—informed by historical, philosophical, and exegetical learning—to follow the lead of the partisans and bring this text’s ampler meaning to light for all citizens to consider. They should read Danielle Allen’s egalitarian effort, but others as well, perhaps starting with Michael Zuckert’s philosophically informed “structural” reading in The Natural Rights Republic (1999). And, since both of the aforementioned suffer from a shyness about the issue of the deity in the Declaration, best not to leave out Frazer’s work referenced above. Or just reflect upon whether human equality can have a firm basis other than Biblical religion.

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