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Self-Government & the Declaration of Independence

By: Diana Schaub, Danielle Allen
July 16, 2015

In the Winter 2014/15 CRB, Diana Schaub reviewed Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by Danielle Allen. We’re very pleased to have them discuss here the questions raised by the book and review. Danielle S. Allen, the author of three books prior to Our Declaration, is the UPS Foundation Professor in School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Diana Schaub, a frequent contributor to CRB and other journals, is a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Jill and Boyd Smith Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.


Danielle Allen: Every author should be so lucky to have a reader as thoughtful and committed to careful reading as Diana Schaub. She gets a lot right, a few small things wrong, and raises three related issues that are worth engaging at length. These concern my treatment of God, equality, and democracy.

First, for the right and the small. I appreciate Schaub’s attention to my title. Who is the “our” of Our Declaration? Schaub writes: “The ‘our’ for whom Allen speaks is unclear from the title—does the Declaration belong to all Americans, some subset of Americans, or perhaps to an even larger collective like all human beings?” Schaub gets it right with all three suggestions. The Declaration belongs to all Americans. It belongs, even, and pointedly, to those to whom it is often said not to belong: the poor, and minorities. Here we hit Schaub’s small error. My night students—adults who had never read the Declaration—were mostly native born, not recent immigrants. The “Our” of my title includes these marginalized populations among the Declaration’s shareholders. Finally, because the Declaration’s argument rests on claims about human beings as such, and because it is addressed to the “candid world,” the Declaration of Independence also belongs to as much of humanity as wishes to claim it. A careful reader, like Schaub, asks the right questions, and thereby exposes the answers, even if without always taking credit for doing so.

Now, let me turn to God, equality, and democracy. On these subjects, Schaub gets off on the wrong track, mainly by virtue of misreading my treatment of the idea of Nature’s God. She writes: “Allen desperately wants there to be a solid non-religious foundation for rights. She betrays the same discomfort that I have seen in my students when they encounter Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insistence on the theistic assumptions that inform the practice of nonviolent resistance. She wants the wiggle-room of the ‘and/or’ formulation.” Schaub seems to suggest that I am seeking a secular foundation for the Declaration of Independence, and so also writes: “It’s hard to build this kind of political religion on the sandy soil of secular self-interest.”

In fact, I seek a compromise arrangement, or an overlapping consensus, that will permit believers and non-believers both to embrace the Declaration. The religious language in the Declaration similarly crafts a compromise. It studiously avoids commitment to any particular theological doctrine or sectarian view and made it possible for deists like Franklin and Jefferson to affirm the same document as a Puritan like Roger Sherman. In so doing, the Declaration’s religious language signals not only democracies’ profound need for compromise but also, specifically, the central importance of religious compromise. Schaub comments that my reading of this passage may be “close” but is less than “faithful” to the text and, in a sense, she is right. The compromise that I identify as possible—between the faithful and the secular—goes beyond that effected in 1776 among Christians, deists, and closet atheists. I do not, however, believe that it goes much beyond it—so stark already were the disagreements that characterized the religious views of the men of 1776. My reading is true to the Declaration in seeking to probe the contours of the space it provides for religious compromise, and testing that space for capaciousness.

Because Schaub reads me (I think) as choosing a side in the fight between faith and secularism rather than as attempting to forge a compromise, she then misreads my account of human equality. Schaub erroneously argues that I treat equality as a purely human creation, rather than as something that precedes our own doing. She writes: “On her reading, nature (and/or God) blesses us with political life and we, in turn, make various beautiful forms of equality our political handiwork. Thus, [Allen] evokes equality not as a pre-political datum, but rather as a flower ‘only half bloomed in this land.’” In fact, I argue that we are blessed with a natural equality that consists of both our moral equality and our political capacity. In the Declaration, our moral equality is expressed with reference to our basic rights (which capture the fact that we just do pursue our survival, freedom, and well-being and ought to be left alone to do so, if we are to be the kinds of creatures we are and to have a chance at peace).

But our natural equality also consists of our political capacity to build governments that protect our basic pursuits as enforceable rights. The right use of our natural equality is through the deployment of that political capacity to establish political equality. So, yes, we ought to make “various beautiful forms of equality our political handiwork,” but equality does not make its first appearance on the human stage on account of our own handiwork. Equality enters the world when each of us does—which was, of course, in the case of every single one of us, not a matter of our own doing.

The key question, then, is how best to understand the project of building from moral to political equality. What should be the object of our handiwork? A republic, or a democracy? In my view, this is a non-question. In fact, it can only seem a real question if, again, the compromises that secured the early American polity are obscured. In 1776, plenty of founders invoked the idea of democracy as the goal of their pursuit. Take Samuel Adams, as an example, in this letter written to Benjamin Kent, dated July 27, 1776: 

New Govts are now erecting in the several American States under the Authority of the people. Monarchy seems to be generally exploded—and it is not a little surprising to me, that the Aristocratick Spirit which appeard to have taken deep Root in some of them, now gives place to that of Democracy. You justly observe that “the Soul or Spirit of Democracy is Virtue.” No State can long preserve its liberty “where Virtue is not supremely honord.” I flatter my self you are mistaken in thinking ours is so very deficient, and I do assure you, I find relief in supposing your Colouring is too high.

Samuel’s brother, John, whose April 1776 pamphlet, Some Thoughts on Government, is perhaps the most immediate source of the Declaration’s lines of thought and argument, described Thoughts as hewing to a middle way between the expectations of North and South. He clothes his compromise not in the vocabulary of democracies and republics, but with reference to the varying possible degrees of commitment to a “popular” element. “In New England, the ‘Thoughts on Government’ will be disdained,” John Adams wrote on May 12, 1776, to James Warren, “because they are not popular enough. In the Southern Colonies, they will be despised and detested, because too popular.” The politics of the early United States were characterized by an argument over whether more democratic or more aristocratic approaches to politics should prevail and to suggest that a single term—whether “democracy” or “republic”—came to define the new political entity obscures the enduring argument over that question and the history of specific compromises achieved to make it possible for those who disagreed powerfully with one another to participate nonetheless as equal shareholders of the new set of public political institutions.

In the period of the Revolution, “democracy” was one viable ideal for orienting action; “republic” was another. Yes, as the new United States struggled with the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, the idea of democracy came in for sustained criticism, and James Madison sought to drive a wedge between the ideas of a democracy and a republic. He closely linked the former to direct democracy, specifically, as represented by ancient Athens, and the latter to mixed regimes in which aristocrats have roles distinct from those of the ordinary people. Rome, of course, was the model for that. Yet neither Madison’s stark terminological clarity, nor his history, went without challenge, even in The Federalist Papers themselves.

The authorship of Federalist 63 is attributed to both Madison and Hamilton. Importantly, it corrects an element of Madison’s argument in Federalist 10 and 14, so if the author was not Hamilton, then Madison must be ventrioloquizing his critique. In Federalist 10 and 14, Madison held up ancient “pure democracies” as examples of what is wrong with democracy and why a “republic” is to be preferred; he refers explicitly to Athens as a pure democracy in 14. But the author of 63 points out that this description of Athens is inaccurate: “[T]he position concerning the ignorance of the ancient government on the subject of representation is by no means precisely true in the latitude commonly given to it.” The author then goes on to make the case that Athens, too, had made use of representation and the election of elite leaders for instance, its nine Archons. The disadvantage of “the democracies of Greece,” this paper argues, was not their political form but their limited geographical extent. This paper, in contrast to 10 and 14, recuperates the idea of “democracy.”

And Hamilton himself did just that when he advocated for the new Constitution in the New York ratifying Convention. Devoting an entire speech to confusion that had arisen over what the words “republic” and “democracy” signified, he argued that the new Constitution formed “a representative democracy.” Here is an extract from his notes for his speech of July 12, 1788: 

A republic a word used in various senses. 
Has been applied to aristocracies and monarchies….
Again great confusion about the words. Democracy, Aristocracy, Monarchy…
Democracy in my sense, where the whole power of the government in the people 
Aristocracy where whole sovereignty is permanently in the hands of a few for life or hereditary 
Monarchy where the whole sovereignty is in the hands of one man for life or hereditary. 
Mixed government when these three principles unite. 
Consequence, the proposed government a representative democracy

Plenty of people probably voted for the Constitution because they thought it created a “republic,” but plenty of others probably did because they thought it forged a “representative democracy.” Once again, a close look at the founding shows us the formation of an overlapping consensus. Whatever we may call governments that derive their power from the people, they can function only with compromise. The right kinds of compromise make it possible for people to play the same game, even if for different reasons. Not all compromises are worthy, but there are many more good ones than we commonly believe these days.

To work one’s way fully into the argument of Our Declaration, one has to be ready to entertain the possibility that we ought to refresh our faded commitment to compromise, rather than spurning it as “temporizing with prejudice.” The idea that we ought to recover the art of compromise, and recognize it when we see it, is part of my “pep talk for a more demanding practice of self-government.”


Diana Schaub: Danielle Allen’s praise and small correction are gratefully accepted. As for my “misreadings” on the subjects of God, man, and government, I think actually that Allen’s restatement of her position confirms my initial characterizations (which were perhaps not stated clearly enough). Although I’m hopeful that we can agree about her assertions, I suspect the price of clarity might be to sharpen our larger disagreements.  

I think I did not misread her when I asserted that she is intent on finding “a solid non-religious foundation for rights.” I did not say, or mean to imply, that she wants such a foundation to be the only one or even the prevailing one (indeed, I don’t have any reason to think it is her own preferred foundation). I understood that she aimed at inclusiveness. My point was simply that the Declaration is not phrased in terms of two possibilities: the religious or the secular. As Allen says, she is seeking a “compromise arrangement” or “overlapping consensus.” However, her desired consensus is different from the one in the Declaration, as she acknowledges when she says that “in a sense, [Schaub] is right” that the reading offered in Our Declaration is “less than ‘faithful.’”

In the quest for inclusiveness, the scope of possible agreement between believers and non-believers is a key question. “Closet atheism”—which might be better described as philosophic agnosticism about the ultimate questions of cosmology—can comport quite comfortably with the Declaration’s original formulation and meaning. However, the atheism we encounter today cannot. Much of contemporary atheism is arrogantly dogmatic. As we see from the transfigurations wrought in the last couple of decades, the uncloseted version of a thing has profoundly different social effects than the closeted version.

Even Thomas Jefferson, who argues that the law ought to tolerate avowed atheists (since the avowal “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”), makes clear that he speaks only of liberty for the “operations of the mind.” Thus, in Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson, having defended the right “to say there are twenty gods, or no god,” goes on to argue that the courtroom testimony of an avowed atheist might be rejected and socially stigmatized. Abraham Lincoln seems to go further when he says that the one who is “an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion” has no right “thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.” In other moods, Jefferson too recognized the threat of moral injury. In the very next Query after his qualified defense of public atheism, he worries whether “the liberties of a nation [can] be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?”

My further point was that Allen’s attempt to find “overlapping consensus” between believers and non-believers undercuts the ground she needs if she is to realize her own hopes for a “beloved community.” The phrase, which comes from Martin Luther King, Jr., via Booker T. Washington, captures the exalted character of her political aspirations and underlying “sublime optimism about human potential” (which she attributes to the Declaration as well). While there is much that believers and non-believers can agree on when it comes to goals like security and prosperity, a beloved community requires more. Beloved communities require soulful individuals, and followers of Thomas Hobbes ain’t that. 

On human equality, again, I don’t think I have misread. I grant that Allen subscribes to a notion of both original equality and politically-achieved equality, and further that she thinks we can achieve real, tangible equality as a result of a “blessed” (or “lucky,” since we should remember our need to overlap with the atheists among us) fact of our nature: our equality in political capacity. My point was that the founders would not agree with her thesis of equal political capacity (at least not in its strong version) or her view that the main aim of political action is the achievement of equality of condition. My formulation in the review, which was perhaps too schematic, was an attempt to show two things: how Allen shifts the main weight of equality forward, into an egalitarian political project (her avowed aim) and how she does so by denying that there is any pre-political realm or status. I think I am correct in saying that Allen does not regard equality as a “pre-political datum” since for her humanity’s original equality includes equality with respect to political capacity. In her view, we are political beings through and through—and that does seem to me a departure from the anthropology of the Declaration.

So, on to government. When the Declaration says the people may design whatever form of government seems to them “most likely to effect their safety and happiness,” it makes room for choices other than democracy and more democracy. For instance, we might deploy our political capacity by making allowance for politically significant forms of inequality. Federalist 10 argues that “the first object of government” is the protection of “the diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate.” Allen’s exclusive focus on equality leads to a neglect of other goods that human beings seek through government, like liberty, stability, and good administration.

I agree that it can be constructive to see the governance issue, both then and now, in terms of “varying possible degrees of commitment to a ‘popular’ element.” However, I must point out that Allen’s claim that Federalist 63 “recuperates the idea of ‘democracy’” is based on a serious misreading of the text. The misreading begins with a small error: Allen says that Publius “refers explicitly to Athens as a pure democracy in 14.” In fact, Publius does not mention Athens by name; he refers to “the turbulent democracies of ancient Greece, and modern Italy,” Athens presumably among them. He explains further that by “democracy” is meant a government in which “the people meet and exercise the government in person,” as opposed to a “republic” where “they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.” Allen is right that Federalist 63 introduces an interesting twist. Publius here indicates that the ancients were aware of, and made some use of, the principle of representation, particularly for the executive functions of government; he mentions by name not only Athens, but Carthage, Sparta, Rome, and Crete. So if the ancients also used representation, what then is the real difference between us and them? Allen suggests the answer is “their limited geographical extent.” But that is not what Publius says. Consider this sentence:

The true distinction between these [the political constitutions of the ancients] and the American governments, lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter [i.e., the American governments], and not in the total exclusion of the representatives of the people from the administration of the former [i.e., the ancient governments].

Publius insists that our “most advantageous superiority” is that we have no element at all of direct democracy; we totally exclude the people “in their collective capacity.” Our complete reliance on the principle of representation works together with our “extensive territory” (Publius calls this our “other advantage”). This is the exact opposite of a recuperation of the idea of democracy. According to the passages that Allen brings forward from The Federalist Papers, as well as Hamilton’s speech in the New York Convention, the uniqueness of our system is that it is a government with a wholly popular foundation (“We the people…do ordain and establish this Constitution”) that nonetheless entirely excludes the people in their collective capacity from the day-to-day conduct of government. 

The final issue raised by Allen is compromise. It is incorrect to say that I spurned compromise as “temporizing with prejudice.” Rather, I embraced compromise as “temporizing with prejudice”—surely you wouldn’t reject my willingness to compromise just because my reason for compromising is not the same as another’s. It is true that I don’t believe compromise is a good in itself or that the spirit of compromise is a virtue. Prudence is a virtue, and while it often supports the call for compromise, it doesn’t always. 

My model for such judgment is Abraham Lincoln. It’s interesting to look at Lincoln’s 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay who had acquired the sobriquet “the Great Compromiser” for his role in brokering the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. In praising Clay, Lincoln ostentatiously avoids using the term “compromise,” instead stressing Clay’s anti-slavery stance and “his ruling passion—a love of liberty and right, unselfishly, and for their own sakes.” With great subtlety, Lincoln positions himself as the heir of Clay, “as the man for a crisis.” When that crisis arrived, Lincoln famously rejected the scramble for compromise measures. The Crittenden Compromise, for instance, was a legislative attempt to avert the dissolution of the Union by relenting on the question of the extension of slavery into the territories. Lincoln quashed it, since it would in effect have invalidated the people’s choice of Lincoln and the Republican Party, as expressed through the mechanism of a perfectly constitutional election. He felt duty-bound to reject it. “And the war came.”

A more demanding practice of self-government would be one that resuscitated not simply compromise but prudence, with its ability to sometimes counsel flexibility and at other times hold out intransigently for principle, even at great cost. Of course, I don’t entertain the utopian hope that prudence will ever be generally possessed (I know I don’t have it)—or that “collective intelligence” and “egalitarian approaches to knowledge cultivation” could ever substitute for it—and so I would prefer that we not dismantle the “inventions of prudence” (Federalist 51) that have been constitutionally bequeathed to us.

Somehow our conversation has shifted from the Declaration to the Constitution—not surprisingly, since ours is a founding with twin testaments.
 

Allen: Prof. Schaub and I disagree about the capacity of atheists for soulfulness. We also disagree about whether the word “democracy” should be understood in the first instance to refer to “direct” democracy. It need not, as Hamilton points out, and “democracy” can refer to political systems that are based on “a wholly popular foundation” (Schaub’s words) but that nonetheless rely on representation for their operations. By broadening our understanding of the term “democracy,” both Publius and Hamilton also recuperate the concept.

The most important feature of our discussion, however, is our exchange about equality. I’m not sure that I can call this a disagreement exactly, since I do not recognize my book in Schaub’s description of it in her second piece. There are some views about equality with which she clearly disagrees, but they are not my views.

Most importantly, counter to her assertion, nowhere in my book do I argue that “the main aim of political action is the achievement of equality of condition.” I cannot even imagine what such an argument would look like, for the obvious reason of the impossibility of such a thing. I challenge Schaub to show me where she thinks I make such an argument.

Similarly, I find the following unrecognizable: “Allen’s exclusive focus on equality leads to a neglect of other goods that human beings seek through government, like liberty, stability, and good administration”

I do argue for the common human possession of a political capacity as the beginning point of politics. I also argue that political equality is among the ends of politics, but alongside precisely those ends which Schaub claims that I neglect. To quote from Our Declaration: “Good government requires pursuing the common good, cultivating and protecting the rule of law and the sovereignty of the people, encouraging material prosperity and growth, and providing access to justice, security, and peace for the citizens” (p. 247).

The entire argument of the book aims to show how “equality and freedom are united,” and the two ideals appear together frequently enough to have made it into the index, which I did not produce, as a pair.

I’m not sure why Schaub has decided to paint my argument monochrome. I do worry, though, in general, that our intellectual muscles for thinking about equality have atrophied over the course of the 20th century. When someone invokes the idea, one should begin by asking whether her subject is moral equality, political equality, social equality, economic equality, or some other kind altogether. In my case, I argue that the Declaration rests a case for political equality as both the beginning of politics and one of its ends on a claim of human moral equality; in addition, I argue, the Declaration recognizes the importance to the achievement of political equality of such social equality as is expressed in norms of reciprocity, but it has next to nothing to say about economic equality, or even economic justice or fairness.

In my own voice, I follow the Declaration in arguing for political equality as both the beginning and an end of politics. I stake that claim on human moral equality, and graft it onto a baseline commitment to social equality, again, defined in terms of norms of reciprocity. With regard to economic questions, which I scarcely address in the book, I elsewhere consider these through the lens of whether our economic frameworks are such as will best effect our safety and happiness. As to the definitions of “safety” and “happiness,” an important question is whether our economic policies support or undermine political equality.

Schaub argues that I have gotten the anthropology of the Declaration wrong. She writes: “For [Allen] humanity’s original equality includes equality with respect to political capacity. In her view, we are political beings through and through—and that does seem to me a departure from the anthropology of the Declaration.” The question, then, is whether the writers of the Declaration thought human beings can exist without being political. I think the answer to this is no. This seems to me the fundamental claim of the Declaration’s all-important second sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Schaub suggests, in effect, that history transpires between the first three clauses and the fourth on this list of self-evident truths. That is, she appears to take this list of self-evident truths to imply a chronology. First there is a time where we have rights. Then there is a time when government comes. But the sentence does not imply passage of time, only logical relations. Rights and governments, although not necessarily good ones, come into being simultaneously. The hard part is clawing our way to good government. Our Declaration makes a quiet argument for the importance of Aristotelianism and Stoicism to the thought that went into the Declaration of Independence, a part of the intellectual history of 1776 that has received insufficient attention.

But let me return to the theme of equality. I would never pretend to have achieved a once-and-for-all account of how we should understand the ideal, regardless of whether what is meant by it is something moral, political, social, or economic. I sought, first, to renew our interest in understanding the ideal and, second, to achieve the best understanding of which I was capable of the argument about equality in the Declaration of Independence. I believe that as a society we have significant intellectual labor ahead of us, as I do too, if we are to renew our grasp of just how equality and freedom are related to each other.


Schaub: Despite my crack about Hobbesians, I believe that all human beings possess souls. The difficulty is that consistent atheists underrate not only their own soulfulness, but yours and mine as well. When all is regarded as “merely a modification of matter,” the possibility of human freedom disappears and we become equal to any other modification of matter, say that of an insect (see Montesquieu’s Pensées 1266). Tocqueville was particularly concerned about the grave political effects of such reductionist materialism. He observed how the consumerist desire for more stuff (encouraged by the American business ethos) could prepare the way for the theoretical belief that matter is all there is, in turn heightening the “insane ardor” for “material enjoyments.” Thus he warns: “Such is the fatal circle into which democratic nations are propelled. It is good for them to see the peril and restrain themselves.” Rather than search for an “overlapping consensus” between believers and non-believers, as Allen suggests, Tocqueville recommends attention to the health of “spiritualist opinions,” in particular, the belief there is an “immaterial part of man” or “immortal principle” (Democracy in America, vol. 2, part 2, chapter 15).

I continue to believe that Danielle Allen is seriously mistaken about the founders’ attitude toward “democracy.” The disagreement is important both in itself and because it illustrates some of the perils of what is now called “engaged scholarship.” With admirable honesty, Allen makes her motives and agenda clear. She speaks of her “driven commitment to egalitarian democracy”; her book “tries to give that experience of taking possession of the ideal of equality to everyone who cares about democracy”; and she asks with a flourish “are we not all democrats?”

Clearly, the valence of the word “democracy” matters intensely to her. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the term had opprobrious connotations during the era of the Declaration and Constitution (for Federalists and anti-Federalists alike). The term, of course, does not appear anywhere in the Declaration of Independence. Neither, for that matter, does “republic.” The Declaration instead speaks of “government,” “form of government,” and “systems of government.” The only forms designated by name are the bad ones: “despotism” and “tyranny.” However, analysis of the list of British “injuries and usurpations” reveals much about the proper form of rule over “a free people.” To her credit, Allen does explore individual items in the list, as well as its overall structure, noting, “In this picture of tyranny we’ve cleverly been given an outline of constitutional theory.” In response to her allegation of unfairness, let me say that Allen does indeed discuss other ends of government. However, when discussing “the common good,” “the rule of law” or “freedom,” she tends to resolve all elements into “people power.” The constitutional theory outlined in the Declaration is much more complex, detailed, and hard-headed than that. We learn, for instance, that government ought to be organized into separated powers and we learn about key principles like the priority of the legislative, the independence of the judiciary, and the subordination of military to civilian authority. Allen, however, approaches the list as a kind of storytelling which she elucidates with stories of her own about the soured friendship of Amy and Betty (analogues of King and colonists) or the effects of impressment on the marriage of young William and Susan. Approaching the grievances as stories (more than or rather than as “Facts”) brings her to this conclusion: “The stories are not really histories, then, but symbols, if not fables.”

The culminating chapter of the section of Our Declaration that deals with the grievances is devoted to an egalitarian interpretation of the Declaration’s ninth and tenth sentences about the King’s injurious response to the petitions of the colonists. Rather than a few select quotations, here is an extended passage from Allen:

The role of talk in politics is no different from its role in friendship. The same sorts of notions of fairness that apply to our friendships also apply to our political relationships. If we expect to recalibrate relations among ourselves and rulers or among ourselves and fellow citizens on the basis of conversation, then we expect that the person to whom we speak participates with us in a world where we try to protect equal spheres of agency by using conversation to identify where the balance has gone wrong and needs to be recalibrated. In other words, the ideal of equality that lies behind the ninth sentence of the Declaration is an equality of agency, and a commitment to participate in the conversational modes that allow friends, or groups of citizens, to restore balance in the distribution of agency….

Here, in this part of the Declaration, we have a powerful example of what it means to say that all men are created equal. Each wants a sphere of agency unfettered by others. Each has the capacity to engage, through talk, in a project of responsiveness to make sure that none is encroaching on the sphere of agency of another. The achievement of freedom depends on this egalitarian engagement in a constant recalibration to undo, or redress, or fix encroachments. A free people grounds its problem-solving methods on this sort of egalitarian basis, in habits of reciprocity. Doing things with words is at the heart of those egalitarian problem-solving methods and mutual responsiveness….

King George is not fit to be a ruler of a free people because, it turns out, he does not understand the only practice that secures freedom [emphasis added]: the engagement of the relevant parties in practices of responsiveness that permit the ongoing recalibration of relations in order to preserve the equal spheres of agency that each wants, regardless of what different things each may do with it.

Sounds nice, I guess, but I think it misconceives the nature of rule, the right of petition, and the preconditions of freedom. One would have almost no sense from Allen’s book that the colonists, in braving independence, considered war one of the practices that secures freedom. The “recalibration” to which they committed themselves cost the lives of 25,000 patriots. Even in the government they then constructed through their own consent, the distinction between rulers and ruled remained in effect. (The very right of petition suggests to me a fundamental inequality of agency that cannot be overcome.) As a result, those awful powers of rule had to be divided and organized—or made constitutional—in sophisticated ways that better foiled encroachment and abuse. Talk is crucial to decent political life, but it isn’t the whole of it (as it perhaps can be for friendship). Nor should we forget that political talk, when it is preliminary to voting, helps to determine winners and losers.

These are the kinds of things I had in mind when I asserted that Allen neglected or did not do justice to these other elements and ends of political life. Yes, Allen tries explicitly to unite equality and freedom, but it seems to me she does so by absorbing freedom into equality. Her explanation of their union is that “equality is the ground of freedom.” How about granting freedom a little ground of its own or, perhaps, an equal sphere of agency? Just to clarify: I don’t mean to imply that I utterly reject Allen’s formulation. I think we agree about the priority of the Declaration’s assertion that all men are created equal. My disagreement is with her all-embracing extensions of equality.

Allen strongly objected to my claim that she aims at “equality of condition.” I’m not sure how she took the phrase, perhaps in a purely economic sense. I deliberately chose “equality of condition” to echo Tocqueville’s description of the centuries-long, ongoing democratic revolution that has produced a leveling of ranks and that continues to produce new social and political manifestations of equality. He calls this “equality of conditions” and he regards it as a fact—“the generative fact” of American society—not an “impossibility.” I thought the phrase captured the manifold facets of equality that interest Allen and that she wishes to see more fully realized. Let me use her terms instead: she wants “equal spheres of agency”; she wants “equal access to the tool of government” (and she argues that it doesn’t exist now inasmuch as “policy outcomes routinely track the stated preferences of the affluent but not those of the middle class or the poor”); she wants “equal ownership share” in which “people participate equally in creating a world together”; she wants “egalitarian approaches to knowledge cultivation” on the model of crowd-sourcing. Straightforward material equality sounds more doable to me than her ideal.

The nature of her ideal brings us back to the word “democracy.” Although Allen is obviously not recommending direct democracy as a live option for a nation of 350 million people, she does want a more directly participatory democracy. I admire the gumption with which she has tried to enlist John Adams and Alexander Hamilton on her side, even though the two of them were denounced as “monocrats” by the hypertrophic partisans of their own day. That charge was slanderous, since Adams and Hamilton were faithful to the genus of popular government. However, they believed there were different species of popular government, and that the democratic one in which the entire people assembled as a body was to be avoided (indeed, even a unitary representative body was to be avoided). Here’s Hamilton at the New York Ratifying Convention on June 21, 1788:

It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.

He ends the speech by describing our Constitution as “a genuine specimen of representative and republican government.”

It might be worth noting that the passage that Allen cites as evidence of Hamilton’s “recuperating” the concept of democracy (by means of the phrase “representative democracy”) is in fact not in Hamilton’s hand. The document purporting to be an outline of the first half of his July 12 speech to the New York Ratifying Convention is found in the John C. Hamilton Transcripts (the later work of his son). No other evidence of that formulation exists. Neither the newspaper account of the July 12 speech in The Daily Advertiser nor the contemporaneous notes of Melancton Smith mention any such line of argument detailing forms of government. Whether Hamilton uttered the phrase “representative democracy,” or whether his son swapped “democracy” for “republic” in order to rehabilitate his father’s reputation, in any case, it is the qualifier “representative” that is all-important. To reiterate the import of the passage from Federalist 63: what is unique about the American governments (state and federal) is “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.” These structures are fully representative, and nothing but representative.

If the great body of citizens welcome—and flourish under—such indirect and limited government, then that would help answer the anthropological question about whether we must be polis-beings in the Aristotelian sense. As I indicated in the original review, I am intrigued by what Allen now acknowledges was a “quiet argument for the importance of Aristotelianism.” I would like to see the case made more explicitly, and with more evidence—both of how the founders understood Aristotle and of Aristotle being as egalitarian as Allen suggests.

Interestingly, there are substantial areas of agreement between Aristotle and Locke, including the matter of chronology. In book 1 of the Politics, Aristotle indicates that human beings without law and justice are the very worst of creatures. Even as he argues that man is by nature directed toward political life, Aristotle points out that political order is a human invention—“the one who first constituted a city is responsible for the greatest of goods.” According to Aristotle, most people don’t live politically (since they live either clannishly or subject to vast despotisms). So, for Aristotle as much as Locke, there is a chronology. That said, I read the chronology of the Declaration as closer to Locke’s version, because of its modern emphasis on rights-based equality. Rights and government don’t come into existence at the same moment. Rights come first, both logically and chronologically. There was never and can never be a time when human beings don’t possess rights. Since we are said to construct government to secure rights, there must be times and places where rights are insecure. Examples would be the two extremes of lawless regions and absolute states. The Declaration’s distinction between “created” (our natural endowment) and “instituted” (something begun among men by men in the interest of men) suggests to me a necessary chronology. Built things take time; they take art and skill. So, I agree that bad governments predate good ones (and bad ones continue to predominate even after the appearance of good ones). When the Declaration states, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it might seem as if self-government is as old as the hills. However, the signers knew full well this was a first. The Declaration is epoch-making. In recognition of the Novus Ordo Seclorum, Abraham Lincoln used a double-dating system (to both the Christian era and the American era) on executive decrees like the Emancipation Proclamation: “Done at the city of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.”

After all this dissent, let me conclude with a concurrence. While our political order does not demand as much from citizens as, say, the Spartan model, it does still require citizens—educated citizens. I emphatically agree with Danielle Allen that the place for those citizens to start is with the Declaration of Independence. Attentive reading of our founding charter is a much-needed intellectual and moral endeavor.