At a recent National Constitution Center event, political philosopher Danielle Allen examined the value and promise of political equality articulated by the Declaration of Independence.
In her conversation with Chris Phillips, Senior Education Fellow at the Constitution Center, Allen drew upon her new book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, to tackle the contradictions between ideals and reality in a document that perpetuated slavery.
Allen, a professor of social science at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and the newly appointed chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board—the first African-American woman to hold that position—is widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America.
Her discussion was presented in conjunction with the Constitution Center’s feature exhibition, Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello—a powerful, revealing and deeply personal look at six slave families who lived and worked at Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia. This special exhibit runs through October 19, 2014.
“In order to build a community that can protect us, individually and collectively, you have to have equality at the center of your thinking and effort,” Allen said.
Although the Declaration has been “an incredibly powerful liberating force” on behalf of equality, Allen acknowledges that it “did establish another set of customs and habits that were about suppressing, in particular African Americans and Native Americans, and so we have to wrestle with that twin legacy of the text.”
Indeed, the Declaration was very much a product of the political process and a product of its time.
“Jefferson’s draft did make a coherent argument about equality, and that coherent argument did not get edited out,” Allen explained. “Specific things got edited out—more religious language got added, the strongest language condemning slavery got edited out—but the important thing to recognize is that, with regard to the slavery question, again, that’s another place where the document is remarkable for what it does as a compromise.
“We’re used to thinking of the Constitution as a document that compromised. We tend not to think of the Declaration that way, but it did as well,” she said.
Watch the full program below or on YouTube.
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