Rethinking the Declaration of Independence, Together

A recent book on the Declaration of Independence is itself a striking political act.

By Nathan Pippenger

Over at Crooked Timber, Heather Gerken has an illuminating meditation on the political theorist Danielle Allen’s recent book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. As Gerken notes, Allen’s book—which is an extended close-reading of the Declaration—is “eclectic, even strange”: it borrows from a variety of disciplines (law, history, philosophy, political theory), includes a number of biographical details, and is written in a disarmingly down-to-earth voice that invites the reader along on Allen’s analysis of a document that is by turns familiar and alien. Although the book is an interpretive tour de force, it is not only that. Like Gerken, I was struck by how thoroughly political Allen’s project also was. Gerken expresses this point elegantly:

[Allen] insists we read the Declaration as if it belonged to us. A specific us, a contemporary us, even a presentist us. She isn’t just engaged in an act of interpretation, but an act of faith. She believes we really can understand ourselves as part of an enduring, interpretive community […] Often those who look to the past for guidance are engaged in little more than ancestor worship. But Allen’s unusual methodology puts us on equal footing with the Founders. They speak to us, but we respond with a contemporary set of questions and concerns that they could not have thought to anticipate. Constitutional lawyers love to quote Chief Justice Marshall: “it is a Constitution we are expounding,” with the emphasis on the word Constitution. Danielle Allen, in sharp contrast, puts the emphasis on the we.

The two key words here—“we” and “constitution”—have long fascinated political theorists, and for good reason. (The fact that Allen’s book is about the Declaration, not the Constitution, is irrelevant to the broader point here.) There is something tricky about the idea of a constitution, something that was captured in a brilliant short article by the political theorist Hanna Pitkin. Pitkin observes that when we speak of constitutions, we often discuss something we are—the “constitution” of a community referring to its distinctive way of life, its particular collective character. At other times, we speak of “constitution” as something we do: we make constitutions, frame them, innovate politically, establish, inaugurate. Even the American constitution—the oldest written constitution still in use, and one usually discussed in tones approaching reverence—is open-ended by design; the possibility of constituting anew through the amendment process is always with us. Each of these senses of the word is familiar and true, but in combination they suggest a tension that requires constant, careful navigation. A constitution as what we are suggests stability and fixity; a constitution as what we do suggests innovation and creativity.

This is why interpretations of history—particularly of the especially “public” parts of our history, like the charters establishing our political community—are so important. Contrary to a popular myth, these documents do not simply speak for themselves, at least not at the level of ready-to-go political morals, and they are always subject to interpretation and re-interpretation. Yet because this process is (ideally) grounded in history and a good-faith exchange of reasons among members of a democratic community, there is still continuity and rationality to this ever-evolving political practice.

This absence of fixity in our historical tradition is the source of both opportunities and dilemmas. Because the history to which we appeal when we “constitute” is neither entirely fixed nor entirely open-ended, it both enables and constrains democratic action. As Pitkin writes:

[C]onstituting is not just doing whatever one pleases, the expression in action of just any impulse or appetite. To constitute, one must not merely become active at some moment but must establish something that lasts, which, in human affairs, inevitably means something that will enlist and be carried forward by others. Unless we succeed in creating—together with others—something lasting, principled, and fundamental, we have not succeeded in constituting anything.

This is the way in which Allen’s book is not just a scholarly and interpretive feat, but a political act of heartening sincerity. Her reading of the Declaration is a message extended to as many interlocutors as are willing to read her book, accompanied with a persistent, implicit message: “Let’s talk about this.” It’s a deeply egalitarian view of the Declaration that, as Allen notes, is “fundamentally antilibertarian.” That’s an admirable way of putting one’s cards on the table, inviting others to consider this crucial text and its core themes, to interpret and reinterpret. It’s an invitation to constitute—to build something lasting.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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