§1. The Declaration of Independence is a living document; and our every reading provides it the breath of life. Danielle Allen suggests as much when she writes: “We are all part of the ‘world’ to which the Declaration submits its facts. With every fresh reading, the Declaration calls out again for our judgment.” (89). This makes the Declaration a wily document of sorts. It purports to establish something politically important about the necessity of securing political independence from the British crown (and we’ll get to what that something seems to be in a moment), thus to regulate the affairs of men and women. And Yet. The Declaration seems to rely upon our engagement for it to have significant meaning: “The Declaration has expectations of its readers. A reader of the Declaration must be a judge….The Declaration assumes that its readers are […] equipped with moral sense. In calling out to its readers as members of the candid world, the Declaration identifies its audience as consisting of the kind of living organisms that can connect facts with principles in order to make judgments.” (90-1). It co-opts the judgment of readers to substantiate its democratic aims, thus implicates us in the quest for independence and equality from tyranny by asserting in its first line that as a people, the colonists were right to claim for themselves “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”.
In what follows, I use Allen’s engagement with the Declaration and the history of its development to explore a question that is made especially vivid by way of Allen’s engagement – does the Declaration support a case for black radicalism in the United States? I like this question because it is provocative; I prefer to ask it, though, not for its provocative nature but for its philosophical value. Too often, the documents that helped establish this nation are seized by political conservatives to hold in place a view of the founding as those halcyon days we continuously risk forsaking. In the hands of liberals, they are impotently used to hold the line of moderation rather than left leaning politics. But this is a remarkably ironic state of affairs. The founders were radicals of their time. In this seminar I want to remain more true to their spirit, as supported by Allen’s reading, than either conservatives or liberals seem willing to do, and, I want to use racial inequality as the point of entry. Here is my argument: the true spirit of the Declaration can supports a radical black politics that coherently calls into question the present legitimacy of the United States government.
§2. Below, by ‘[a] radical’ (and its cognates) I shall mean, political radical. And by political radical I mean the following, uncontroversially, I think: a person or group using strong non-conventional and unsanctioned means to effect drastic political change, either to disrupt the current status quo or to reinstate a preferred previous status quo. While it may be factually true that radicals (claim to) operate in the name of justice, that is not yet relevant for a definition of radical. Rather, the professed reasons for radicals’ viewpoints have to do with whether their radicalism is justified, just as the reasons for particular strategies and actions have to do with whether those strategies and actions are justified.
My position is that the founders were radicals. I don’t think this position is especially contentious. If one finds it so, that will have more to do with the way we take our present-day political union for granted, thus framing them as patriots, without fully appreciating that a group of men led the way to war and bloodshed to break from Britain, quite in defiance of Britain’s commands, thus acting quite unpatriotically. That is, they used strong unsanctioned means to effect drastic political change to disrupt the status quo. To my mind, the more important observation has to do with the justification they offered. Though a significant portion of the Declaration is dedicated to listing grievances, these are not the reasons for the founders’ radicalism. Rather, they are what we might call data points substantiating or confirming the reasons. Allen is right to offer us such a close reading of the first sentence of the Declaration because it provides the most important reasons for its radical nature. I will reproduce it here to then recapture Allen’s analysis in support of my thesis that the Declaration offers support for present day radicalism, especially black radicalism.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes with impel them to their separation.
So what are these reasons? On Allen’s analysis, there are four:
- pragmatic judgment: Allen’s analysis of the Declaration’s initial sentence is a stunning example of exegetical sleuthing and interpretation and it begins with the first seven words, and with “course” in particular. Allen writes: “Since ‘course’ is just another word for ‘river,’ and image of a waterway lies behind this sentence.” (110) This interpretation is crucial not just because it sets the tone for the general argument of both the book and the Declaration but because it imbues its writers with a kind of elevated vision – “[The colonists] were taking responsibility for observing the currents within human action that pull toward destinations[.]” (114) Here, the writers are taking a distinct pragmatic stance calling for as clear-headed an assessment not only of current conditions in the colonies but their cause, and more important, where they were likely to lead, or else there would be no cause for desiring to change course.
- necessity or being impelled: As distinct from being propelled or expelled, Allen rightly notes that to be impelled is distinct in that one is being pushed toward rather than being pushed forward or out, respectively. Why does this matter? It follows closely on the role of pragmatic judgment. If one intelligently observes the course of human events and, moreover, wishes to change them, then one comprehends motivations for taking action as well as perceiving a narrow range of appropriate actions and their possible outcomes.
- peoplehood: Judgment applies typically to a fairly unified entity – typically persons but also corporations and other groups. The most amorphous and elusive of entities in political theory is the national collectivity we often call ‘a people’. The writers referred to the colonists this way and Allen holds, following the social contract tradition that a people was “simply a group with shared political institutions.” (117). While simple, this definition holds something important in it – the notion that a collectivity could come to identify with shared institutions and by way of that identification consider themselves bound (in some relevant sense) to all others who similarly identified.
- equality: While Allen offers a more nuanced typology of the equality embodied by the Declaration and its writing process later in the book, she restricts herself to the equality indicated by the phrase “separate and equal” in the Declaration’s opening sentence, and here, equality on her reading has to do with equality of status or power as indexed to respect. As she puts it, “Here in the very first sentence of the Declaration the colonists lay claim to a station on the world’s stage equal to Britain’s. This they do not by pulling Britain down but by pulling themselves up. They want respect.” (119)
Taken together, in the form of philosophical reason-giving the first sentence reads as follows: As a collectivity with shared institutions and who have noted the manner and nature of your actions toward us, we feel momentously justified in pursuing respect in the manner consistent with our peoplehood and contrary to the nature of your actions.
§3. There has been no shortage of commentary on what can only be described as deep hypocrisy in America’s being founded on the ideal of equality and liberty at the same exact time it engaged in and prospered from black slavery. It is to the point, also, to note what all observant and thinking people today identify as systemic or institutional racial inequality. This conception of inequality holds that merely being a person who can be identified as racially black significantly increases one’s chances of bearing a disproportionate share of society’s burdens while significantly decreasing one’s chances of benefitting from society’s goods. This is a technical and mild way of saying that if you are black in America today, you are at greater risk for receiving a substandard education, substandard healthcare, being incarcerated or mortally endangered by law enforcement agencies, getting paid less money for the same job, holding less wealth and, generally, receiving much less respect that you are owed. And that’s the short list.
But consider this for a moment. There are more than four hundred years between the establishment of Virginia as a colony and today and more than two hundred years between American independence and today. Yet, in many important respects, very little racial progress has been made – blacks are still given every reason to believe they are second-class citizens, when they have reason to believe they are considered citizens at all. Poignantly, some of our more important contemporary writings would have you believe that American history not only refuses to fully and unconditionally release blacks from bondage but that it also repeats itself, such as when Michelle Alexander describes the present state of the American carceral system as ‘the new Jim Crow’ – Jim Crow being the late 19th and 20th century social and political norms that explicitly segregated and abused blacks in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves.
I just above said that black Americans are given every reason to believe they are second-class citizens and we have already seen that reasons count for a lot with respect to political judgment. Political judgment is always especially tuned into the relationship between institutional arrangements, the attitudes and actions of political elites, and one’s sense of one’s standing – or station – in the polity. Any reasonable black person’s political judgment given the fact of systemic racial inequality should be that neither the state nor polity is showing them any respect. Moreover, pragmatically, this has definitely seemed to be the course of events. Just like the colonist’s historical river, blacks have seen the flow of racism and white supremacy and despite both of those going (partially) into abeyance as explicit social doctrines, their implications continue to produce startlingly similar effects on blacks’ lives. Further, it goes without saying that this state of affairs deeply violates any conception of equality. It is especially important that we conceive the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century as an attempt to secure equality of station or standing – as an attempt for blacks to pull themselves up to the level of whites, in contrast to pulling whites down.
So, with respect to comparing the situation of racial inequality to that of the writers of the Declaration and the colonists, we have the shared desire for equal respect and being impelled by the course of events. Only the idea of peoplehood has gone untreated and it turns out to be crucial for my thesis. Allen follows social contract theorists in holding that a people is defined by its members identifying with shared institutions. With respect to the colonists and the British, this makes some sense since they were separated geographically. The colonists, despite being under the rule of the British had come to develop something like an American way of life and were pledging to do so more drastically by way of the Declaration, then subsequently, the Constitution. The case with respect to blacks in America is more fraught. Blacks currently share the same space with other Americans, and, today are formally citizens. So in one respect they share peoplehood with whites and other groups. But consider this for a moment. A sub-group in America shares peoplehood with the rest of the policy by way of institutions but it is precisely because of those institutions (remember, institutional racism) that blacks can coherently claim that they are treated as second-class citizens. I want to conclude, then, by affirming my thesis. This tension between being formally a part of the people but in fact, not fully part of the people, of having one’s membership brought into substantive question by way of deep injustice on the part of American institutions gives blacks due cause to claim that American institutions and government are illegitimate for they are systematically violating the very thing they were established to do – treat American citizens as such with all the benefits and protections that entails. And, precisely because blacks today share the same sorts of justification for complaint as the Declaration’s writers did at the founding, they, like the founders, are justified in pursuing a radical politics.
This is not the proper space to give an account of what black radical politics would look like. Nor is there enough space to do so in any case. But I can offer some remarks. First, radical politics is quite frequently understood to necessarily be violent or threatening. However, a clear-headed view of the definition of ‘radical’ that I offered earlier tells against that. Surely, violent politics can be radical. So can a politics steeped deeply in the ethics of love and brotherhood. That language and pairing of ideas, though given lip service in certain kinds of organizations has never been deeply mainstream to American politics. That would qualify it as radical in important respects. And love could certainly motivate political actions that are unsanctioned – Martin Luther King, Jr. already proved this point for us by the reasoning he offered in his writings for nonviolence. There is one final point that further solidifies the consistency between the founders’ aims and blacks’ causes for complaint. A proper or justified radicalism is never a way of life. Indeed, radicalism is a response to a state of affairs that has been judged cruel or corrupt or deeply unjust. As a response to that world, radicalism seeks to eradicate the very conditions that brought it into being in the first instance. That is, the actions which it issues aim to destabilize the reasons for continued radical action. And we know this is true. As Allen notes: “In pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, each signer of the Declaration anted up, on behalf of himself personally and his state, an equal stake in the creation of a new political order.” (269) Today we have independence based on a document loved by both white conservatives and white liberals – they’ve gotten the equality and liberty they wanted. We should be grateful to Danielle Allen for giving us a book so clear and erudite about America’s founding that we are now allowed to share with other traditions of political struggle yet one more source of political reasoning to demand the advantages and privileges white Americans have enjoyed ever since the founders and colonists said, “enough is enough.”