The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough

One of the pleasures of reading Our Declaration is encountering Danielle Allen’s thoughtful expression and development of an ideal of political equality. The book not only argues that political equality was a central component of the Declaration of Independence, but argues—powerfully, I think—that this democratic ideal ought to compel us, the readers of the Declaration and of Allen’s book.

Allen gives strong voice to the argument that political equality is valuable in its own right, and valuable because of other goods it brings, like liberty or prosperity. But what exactly is this ideal? Roughly, as I understand it, the idea behind political equality is that all citizens are, and ought to be treated as, equally authoritative over matters of common life. Even more roughly: in a democracy, we’re all supposed to be equally in charge. But what does that mean? What kind of equality is this? Why should we care about it? Over the course of Our Declaration, Allen addresses all of these questions, explaining the “multi-faceted” ideal of equality presented by the Declaration, and—in part by explaining just what this equality is—showing us why it matters.

For all of Allen’s meticulous interpretive work, however, I have doubts about the extent to which the Declaration expresses a vigorous conception of political equality. Accordingly, any democratic ideal we develop on the basis of a reading of the Declaration will need much more egalitarian amendment and elaboration than Allen suggests. First, I am not sure that the most clearly egalitarian aspects of the Declaration’s text involve a strong commitment to political equality, as opposed to other forms of equality less connected citizens’ equal authority over their common life. Second, some of the facets of equality Allen identifies strike me as better described as norms of political inclusion than political equality. Inclusion is a weaker norm than equality because inclusion of citizens in decision-making can (and did) occur on unequal terms. Finally, any argument about ideals of political equality expressed by the Declaration must deal with the outright exclusion of some people from the process of “democratic writing” that issued in the Declaration and from subsequent application of its ideals in independent America. Allen is well aware of these exclusions, and she treats this issue in some of the book’s most searching, thoughtful, and even moving passages. But perhaps more than Allen, I believe that such exclusions limit the extent to which we can identify the Declaration of Independence as expressing a fully egalitarian ideal even for the people it does clearly include within its vision of freedom and equality.

To take the first point: the Declaration’s egalitarianism is evident in what may be its most famous phrase: “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.” (I am accepting Allen’s proposal that a comma, rather than a period, follow “Happiness”!) We are clearly told that people are equal in that they equally have certain rights. But is this a conclusion about political equality, our equal authority over common life and thus political decision-making? Allen argues that the reference to self-evidence invites every reader into the process of judging the claims about political life that follow—a “very democratic approach to truth” (137). This egalitarian approach to individual’s judgment is also reflected in the idea that we each have rights to pursue happiness as we see fit. She then points out that this sentence of the Declaration closely connects our equal rights to the idea that we create governments to secure those rights. Moreover, Allen argues, government, too, is a matter of judgment (including judgment about how best to secure rights), so the passage gains important coherence if it means that governments should be organized to reflect the equal capacity for judgment of all citizens (145).

I think Allen is onto something powerful and true when she argues that political equality involves at its core an equal respect for the judgments of all citizens. She persuasively identifies a close connection between the reasons people are entitled to certain rights and the reasons they are entitled to a government organized democratically—that is, in both cases, because we respect their judgments and their right to have some control over their lives. But is the Declaration really committing to a robust vision of political equality? I am not so sure. One can believe both (1) that everyone equally has certain rights, and (2) that governments should protect such rights, without believing (3) that governments ought to be organized according to strict principles of political equality. One would believe (1) and (2) but not (3) if one thought that governments that are not democratic best secure individual rights. One could believe the latter even if one believed that everyone had some capacity to judge moral and political matters. One might believe, for instance, that there are important inequalities in people’s ability to judge, and that governments will best perform their task of securing rights if they are organized unequally to empower those with the best political judgment. Thus a commitment to equal rights of some kinds need not involve a commitment to equality of political rights and political authority.

This kind of liberal aristocratic view—liberal because of its insistence on individual rights, aristocratic because of its rejection of political equality in favor of the unequal rule of some privileged group—is logically consistent, at least on its surface. Versions of this view were present in the colonies and after independence. Such views influenced the writing of the Constitution, though just how much is a matter of debate. Is it the view expressed by the Declaration? I do not see any clear evidence that it is. But neither do I see clear evidence that it is rejected in favor of a more egalitarian liberalism. There is too much of a gap between equality in rights-holding and equality in political authority to be sure that the Declaration expresses a commitment to a fully democratic way of securing our unalienable rights.

Allen could fairly point out that virtually all of Our Declaration is a response to this skepticism, through a careful argument that many different parts of the Declaration express a commitment to political equality. But here my second doubt enters. The facets of equality that Allen identifies in the Declaration seem to me better understood as facets of political inclusion, which have an ambiguous relationship to equality. Consider what Allen calls “epistemic egalitarianism,” according to which “the ideal of equality here entails finding what each member of the community can contribute to the collective supply of knowledge, for the sake of maximizing the community’s knowledge capacities” (269). This is indeed an important virtue of democracy. I am not sure that as expressed by the Declaration it is an egalitarian ideal, however. Allen points out the Declaration’s list of King George’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” was developed through an information-gathering campaign in which ordinary citizens were encouraged to submit complaints to the Continental Congress. There is certainly something democratic in this openness to, and concern for, citizens’ knowledge (and citizens’ moral judgments that certain facts reflect abuse or usurpation). But while these knowledge-coordinating efforts may have included many citizens, I doubt we can say that these efforts were conducted on truly equal terms. I am by no means an expert on the history, but I would be very surprised if there were not substantial inequalities in whose views were solicited, and whose responses were taken most seriously. How much of a role did propertyless workers have in this process of coordination? What about women? Even among those who were given voice, there is reason to doubt that the process according to which the resulting information was processed and organized was itself egalitarian. (After all, the leaders in the Congress were not selected in strictly egalitarian fashion.) Even if we believe political equality is compatible with some leadership and expertise in coordinating knowledge, this does not, of course, mean that any form of leadership is democratic. Including citizens is an important part of democracy, but it is not yet including them on equal terms. The Declaration may have manifested an innovative form of epistemic inclusion, but it probably fell well short of epistemic egalitarianism.

Similar points apply to Allen’s other facets of equality: the Declaration may manifest inclusive versions of these ideals, but not egalitarian versions. A commitment to “reciprocity,” which Allen convincingly proves animates much of the Declaration (192), can be a strongly egalitarian commitment. But there are hierarchical forms of reciprocity. If reciprocity involves a disposition to treat people fairly if they display a similar disposition, a reciprocal relationship can be hierarchical if the background norms of fairness are not egalitarian. (Consider a “reciprocal” relationship between feudal lords and vassals, or between husbands and wives in a patriarchal society—or between peoples and their legitimate “Prince,” a relationship to which the Declaration does refer.) A demand for reciprocity involves a demand for inclusion in a relationship guided by certain norms, but it is only an egalitarian demand if it is a demand that the relevant norms be suitable for a relationship of equals. Many of the Declaration’s demands for reciprocity are egalitarian, in that they are part of the demand that the American states be treated according to their “separate and equal station.” I am less sure, however, that the Declaration manifests the same egalitarian commitment to reciprocity when it comes to relationships between all individuals, or between all individuals and their government. We should be inspired to extrapolate the ideal in such a manner, but that would be adding a substantial egalitarianism to the argument of the Declaration—a vision of a society of equal individuals—rather than applying what we already find there.

I have parallel questions about another facet of equality, the ideal of “co-creation of the world” (269). A group of people can create a world together without creating on equal terms. Some within the group may see one another as equal co-creators at the same time that they view others as subordinate co-creators—that is, as included but not equal—and others as not partners in creation at all. How confident should we be that the signers’ treatment of one another as equal co-creators of their common life implies any commitment to more universal equality?

One reason I have little confidence in that regard is that, as we all know and as Allen repeatedly acknowledges, many people within the territory of the nascent United States were excluded from the practice of declaring independence, and—to judge from that practice and subsequent political and social practices—from the ideals registered in the Declaration. Black Americans (free and slave), women, Native Americans, and the poorest white men were not included in the process of establishing the Continental Congress, the collective writing of the Declaration, or the implementation of liberal rights and political “equality.” My point in reminding us of this fact is not to condemn the drafters of the Declaration for acting wrongly in engaging in such exclusion (though wrong it was), nor to deny them credit for the political good they did do, through the Declaration and otherwise. The point is that their endorsement, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, of the exclusion must shape our interpretation of the ideals expressed and embodied in the Declaration itself.

One way to respond to the Declaration (and, for that matter, other works that combine inspirational ideals with objectionable ideas or practices, which is to say a great deal of Western political thought) would be to read the relevant ideals—such as liberty and equality—as more or less fully expressed, but applied too narrowly. Responding this way, the task for those inspired by the ideals is to understand them and to apply them universally in a way their progenitors did not. But—challenging as this expansion actually is—things may not be so simple. The Declaration’s failures to include all people in the scope of its ideals might be due to the fact that those ideals were not strongly egalitarian in the first place. Perhaps its ideals of equal rights-holding, epistemic inclusion, reciprocity, and so on, were so easily combined with practices and endorsements of domination and inequality because the ideals were not fully rooted in a commitment to equality. Responding this way, the task is not just to expand the more-or-less appropriate norms to a wider population, but to substantially amend the ideals themselves. This would require much more elaboration on what epistemic egalitarianism involves, what equality in securing rights entails and why we should prefer it, what reciprocity among equals involves, and so on, than can be found in the Declaration itself.

These responses are probably not fully incompatible: there are some ideals in the Declaration we should adopt and work to expand, while others require more active democratic work “to alter or to abolish.” Our Declaration is engaged in both of these tasks—identifying what is valuable in the Declaration and calling for its expanded application, while aiming (though Allen is too modest to put it this way) to explain better than the Declaration does what equality is and why it matters.

However Allen herself or we her readers understand the relationship between her account of equality and that found in the Declaration, Allen has, in my view, presented us some compelling foundations for a conception of political equality. It is a plural, multi-faceted ideal, complex and demanding, while also intuitive and familiar from our own ordinary relationships with others. My doubts caution that we must commit to fully egalitarian versions of the facets of the ideal, and work out just what those egalitarian versions entail for our democratic political practice. In doing some of that work, Danielle Allen has given us reasons to be inspired by the Declaration of Independence. But we will also need to go well beyond it.


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