I’ve gotten in the habit of quoting from Frederick Douglass’s magnificent July 4th Speech, but this year I want to turn to a more contemporary source of inspiration. The political theorist Danielle Allen has written powerfully about the Declaration of Independence, and I’d like just to offer some quotations from her recent conversation with Ezra Klein for my blog on this holiday weekend.
On John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as authors of the Declaration:
That’s an important thing to say out loud because Adams is someone who never owned slaves and Franklin was somebody who was an enslaver earlier in his life but repudiated enslavement and became a vocal advocate of abolition. Both Adams and Franklin were in a different place on enslavement than Jefferson was.
That matters. The Declaration of Independence fed straight into abolitionist movements and efforts. It was the basis of a text that was submitted in Massachusetts in January 1777 moving forward abolition, and abolition had been achieved already in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania by the early 1770s and 1780s.
When we focus on Jefferson, we get one part of America’s story — the story of the slaveholding South. We don’t get the part of the story which was about how abolitionism was developing already, even in the 18th century. That’s part of our story in history, too. We should see it and tell it.
On the importance of thinking of equality and freedom together:
In the 18th century, when people thought about self-government, they often described it as a product of free and equal self-governing citizens. Free and equal always went together. In order to be free, you actually had to be able to play a role in your local institutions. You had to have equal standing as a decision-maker. So freedom and equality were mutually reinforcing.
That concept of self-government predates the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, and the remarkable transformations of the global economy achieved by industrialization and modern capitalism. As the economy transformed, as you saw the immiseration of populations in industrial centers, the question of equality came to have a different balance. There was a new question on the table: How does economic structure interact with freedom and with equality?
So with the 19th century and early 20th century, you began to have a sort of refashioning of the concept of equality primarily around economic concerns and conceptions and castes. That way, there seems to be a tension between a market economy defined as somehow rooted in a concept of freedom and equality based on equal distribution of economic resources. The Cold War brought that to a really high pitch, with the Soviet Union characterized as the political structure in favor of equality and the United States characterized as the political structure in favor of freedom.
But what that debate between those two physical systems did was obscure the fact that at their core, freedom and equality have to be linked to each other. You can’t actually have freedom for all unless most people have equal standing relationship to each other. That’s a political point in the first question. And then you fold in economic issues by asking the question: If we need to achieve equal political standing, then what kind of economic structure do we need to deliver that?
I think it is possible to have market structures that are compatible with egalitarian distributive outcomes. I think you need an egalitarian economy. You don’t need, strictly speaking, an equal distribution of material goods in order to support the kind of political equality that gives people equal standing and of shared ownership of political institutions.
On the relevance of the Declaration for the current moment:
Arbitrary use of police power was at the core of the American Revolution. Arbitrary use of police power and excessive penalty in our criminal justice system have been at the center of many people’s attention for quite a period of time now.
In the declaration, they say, all of our petitions have just been met by repeated injury. Such has been the experience for the last decade too, I think, for people who’ve been working on police reform and reimagining of our justice and public safety system. So I think there’s a lot of continuity. There’s a really strong sense of what rights should be protected and what it means not to have basic rights protected.