“Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality,” a book that brings an eye-opening perspective to one of the most studied texts in U.S. history, is Northwestern University’s One Book One Northwestern all-campus read for the 2017-18 academic year.
The author of “Our Declaration,” Danielle Allen, will deliver a keynote address and sign books Oct. 19 at Northwestern. All first-year students receive a copy of the One Book each year.
Allen, the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, offers readers an intimate look at experiences that inspired the book when she was teaching in the 2000s on the South Side of Chicago.
At the time, she was a political science and classics professor at the University of Chicago by day, and by night she taught adults in the Odyssey Project, a program of the Illinois Humanities Council to help low-income adults, commonly unemployed or underemployed, reenter the educational system.
In the process, Allen experienced a “personal metamorphosis,” rediscovering the Declaration and its central tenets: equality and freedom. The book makes the argument that liberty and equality are interdependent rather than in contest.
Too many Americans buy into the idea that true equality can only be achieved at the expense of our individual freedoms, she argues. As a result, equality has taken a back seat to liberty at the expense of our democracy.
“If we abandon equality, we lose the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place,” she wrote.
Issued by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the 1,337 words of the Declaration led to revolution and ultimately a free and independent United States. The document has been examined by countless scholars and from myriad perspectives, whether political, historical, theoretical or philosophical.
Allen’s argument about the interdependence of liberty and equality in her line-by-line “slow read” of the Declaration in the book reflects what she taught her night students on the South Side of Chicago.
“I wanted to animate the Declaration, to bring it to life for them, and perhaps even bring them through it into a different kind of life -- as citizens, as thinkers, and political deliberators and decision makers. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence,” Allen wrote. “I want that for you, too, because the Declaration is also yours.”
Allen’s work is particularly resonant today, said Geraldo Cadava, associate professor in the department of history at Northwestern and One Book chair for the 2017-18 academic year.
“Recent politics have forced us to revisit the meaning of American institutions and ideals,” Cadava said. “This book is an opportunity to create a campus-wide conversation, not just about equality and freedom, but also the role Northwestern, as an institution and as a community, has to play in national debates.”
Allen also stresses that the book is particularly relevant today.
“The Declaration of Independence is the single best and most efficient primer on democratic citizenship that I know,” Allen said. “Especially in times as turbulent as these, it’s a valuable anchor for all who desire to secure the health of our democracy. Its lessons about equality, freedom, and agency belong to all Americans.”
The One Book One Northwestern Program is sponsored by the Office of the President and will include related films, lectures and other programming throughout the coming academic year. The campus-wide read is chosen by the One Book selection committee.
“The committee found Danielle Allen’s interpretation of ideas all of us have heard many times profound and transforming,” said Eugene Lowe, chair of the One Book selection committee and assistant to the president. “We were also deeply impressed by the elegance of the writing.”
A mixed-race woman descended from slaves, Allen idolized her grandfather, a Baptist preacher who helped found the first NAACP chapter in his north Florida region, and her great-grandmother, whose suffragette stories were passed down through her family like lore.
It was in reading the Bible with her family as a child that Allen first learned lessons about how people might slip the bonds of slavery and obtain equality. She rounded out her answers decades later while examining the Declaration of Independence with a group of adult students on the South Side of Chicago.
Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of five other books; “The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens,” “Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education,”“Why Plato Wrote,” “Education and Equality” and “Cuz: the Life and Times of Michael A.”
A 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Society of American Historians. She is also a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.
Allen was educated at Princeton (AB, 1993), Cambridge (Ph.D. 1996) and Harvard (Ph.D. 2000). Before accepting the post at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, she served as a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Before that, she served as dean of the Division of Humanities and professor of political science, classical languages and literature at the University of Chicago.
Allen’s current work focuses on the connection between education and democratic equality, as well as the significance of political equality for theoretical accounts of justice.