The Declaration as Patrimony

by Henry on June 19, 2015

I was born in Ireland, not America. This country’s habit of conducting its national conversation through its founders and founding documents still seems a little strange to me. The closest Irish equivalent to the Declaration of Independence, the Proclamation of the Republic, has a vexed status in Irish historical memory. This was in part because the republican promises made were never quite delivered on, in part because of Ireland’s civil war, where the losers declared themselves the true heirs of the Proclamation and took up arms on its behalf, and in part because the proclaimers have not been dead sufficiently long to acquire the incorruptible odor of sanctity. Instead of a civic religion centered on my country’s founders, we grew up in the gaps of a conversation that never quite took form, tacit and tactical silences that carefully skirted a complicated history, and, rising up from somewhere below, the sweet aroma of bodies that hadn’t been buried quite deeply enough.

America’s relationship with its moment of founding is very different. The founders and founding documents such as the Constitution are venerated as having been guided by the hand of Destiny, if not God. This notoriously kitschy painting of Jesus holding the US Constitution wouldn’t have excited nearly as much attention and snark had it not captured a relatively common set of beliefs. Yet they are also objects of contestation. People contest the nature of the founders’ revelation as a way of arguing for how they believe America should be.

In One Nation Under God, his recent book on the relationship between corporations and the idea of “Christian America,” Kevin Kruse talks about one effort to use the Declaration of Independence for political purposes. He describes how the Spiritual Mobilization movement used the 175th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing in 1951 to promote their cause. The movement created a new Committee to Proclaim Liberty to co-ordinate their celebrations, whose members included Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, various media figures (including Ronald Reagan), and a wide variety of corporate leaders.

According to Kruse, the Committee “focused its attention on encouraging Americans to mark the holiday with public readings of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence,” in a conveniently truncated and interpolated form. This allowed the committee organizers to reframe the Declaration as a “purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government,” cutting out the parts about King George’s unwillingness to assent to laws that might suggest a legitimate role for a legitimate government. Full page newspaper ads commissioned by the Committee’s corporate sponsors exhorted ordinary Americans to distrust the government and trust God, more or less in that order. Ministers were encouraged by cash prizes to write and deliver sermons on “Freedom under God.” Many of them appear to have used the opportunity to inveigh against our fall from the prelapsarian world of the Founding Fathers, into a degraded state of welfarism, impiety and imminent government socialism.

What is most interesting to me (as a latecomer to the American conversation) about Danielle Allen’s book, is that it sets out to do something very different to Kruse’s businessmen and eminences grises. It isn’t simply that she’s inspired by a different vision of politics, although she very much is; she deplores how the kind of libertarianism that Kruse describes have led to a pinched and vexatious reading of the Declaration. It’s that her understanding of the relationship between America’s founders and its politics today is fundamentally different. While she describes Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the others, she doesn’t invoke them as patriarchal figures of authority, imbued by providence with timeless wisdom. Instead, she sees them as (important) figures in a conversation, that continues to today. The project of the Declaration is not a state of grace that we should aspire to return to. Instead, it’s one moment in a messy, complicated and yet worthwhile political project.

Allen describes the arguments of the Declaration at length, going through it word by word. She admires it greatly and repeatedly, speaking of its beauty, while also setting out to recover a specific reading of equality from it. The principles on which the Declaration justifies the separation of the United States from Britain are principles that can justify equality between human beings. They are also principles that can be debased (she discusses how the colonists’ desire to have a state that was ‘separate and equal’ to the other great states of the world became the ‘separate but equal’ of racial segregation.

Yet Allen’s book wants to do more than simply to describe the ideas set out in the Declaration. It wants to reclaim the Declaration for modern Americans and to incorporate it into our everyday democratic conversation. Treating the words of the founders as a given revelation, as American ideologues of varying politics do, introduces another kind of inequality, one in which the voices of men who have been dead for two centuries necessarily prevail over the voices of men and women today. Making the Declaration into “Our” Declaration requires spadework.

This is perhaps why the book, after reprinting the Declaration of Independence in full, doesn’t turn immediately to exegesis, or a history of its composition. Instead, it starts with personal history. First, a discussion of teaching the Declaration to her night students, working students who “generally entered into the text thinking of it as something that did not belong to them [representing] instead institutions and power, everything that solidified a world that had, as life had turned out, delivered them so much grief, so much to overcome.” And then, a description of Allen’s family history, and inheritance from both African American and WASP ancestors. Together, these provide Allen with the understanding that the Declaration is part of her “patrimony.” Allen is careful with her choice of words, and patrimony is freighted with meaning. On the one hand, it is something that has come from your father or fathers (pater). On the other, it is something that is now unmistakably yours. To claim it is to accept your relationship with your fathers but also to take what they have given you, and turn it to your own needs and purposes. You inherit your patrimony when your father is dead, and no longer stands to tell you what to do with it.

While Allen admires the Declaration, she treats it as an ordinary text, not a sacred one. She compares it to a writ for divorce, and to a memo, documents that can be very important but that do not typically smack of the numinous. It is also a problematic text that emerged from problematic political processes. Original language by Jefferson that condemned the King’s role in encouraging slavery was struck out in its entirety. The Declaration’s patrimony is not simply its principles, but its status as a text that emerged from argument and compromise, and that generates them in turn. A key aspect of equality, for Allen, is the capacity to participate in democratic conversation. She treats Timothy Matlack, the man who drew up the manuscript of the Declaration as a full participant in the writing of it – his decisions guided the flow and emphasis of the final document. People wove together a rough consensus which reflected their biases and flaws, as well as the vexing and messy process of reaching compromise, but which also reflected the democratic advantages of working things through. As Allen describes it:

the Declaration is as much about how to solve the central conundrum of democracy – how to make sure that public actions can count as the will of the people – as about anything else. It is about how to ensure that public words belong to us all. The fact that these early wordsmiths were men – and, for that matter, white – has never kept me from wanting to learn what they knew about words and power. From them we can learn how to use words to engender the actions, build the institutions, and clarify the principles that belong to a democratic people. I believe that the Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement – such a maddening quantity of group writing – are necessary for justice. The argument of the Declaration justifies the process by which the Declaration came to be. It itself explains why the art of democratic writing is necessary.

The Declaration cannot be well understood without understanding the process through which it came into being; the process itself is justified by the Declaration. Both the text and the process are commingled in the heritage of Americans today. Indeed, implicit in Allen’s arguments (as they build on Aristotle and Waldron) is the notion that we are far better able to build on the kinds of processes of creating valuable democratic analysis than the original creators of the Declaration were. They drew upon the perspectives of many people (most of whom shared a common gender, race and rough class position). So long as we take democratic equality seriously, we can draw upon many more perspectives and accordingly reach a better understanding of our situation.

This is why Allen’s argument is structurally different from that of Kruse’s businessmen, and that of a myriad other efforts to enlist America’s founders and founding documents on one side or another of the controversies that define the nation. It surely advocates a strong and specific reading of the Declaration and its meaning. But it does not seek to invoke the Declaration as a kind of ersatz holy writ, distinct in kind from the kinds of compromises that we seek to forge today. Instead, it depicts it as intimately bound up in the process of ordinary politics, both being an outcome and source of the endless, and often frustrating and tedious democratic politicking that allow us to progress, inch by painful inch.

I’ll leave it to others who are better versed to parse through the relationship between these arguments and America’s history of race (as a blow-in from a very different country I feel unqualified to discuss these questions intelligently). Instead, I want to close by highlighting another complexity. Allen begins – and ends – the book with a strong denunciation of current readings of the Declaration that stress liberty rather than equality. The part of her book that I haven’t discussed in as much detail – the detailed sentence by sentence discussion of the content of the Declaration – is intended to support a very different reading (to my eyes convincingly). Yet if we are to agree with Allen on process, the pro-liberty interpretations which she disagrees with are part of the warp and weft of the democratic conversation through which people use the Declaration to argue about America. What is wrong on one level (as long as it is not entirely misguided) may be valuable on another, providing a little bit of the diversity of understanding that allows us to puzzle through difficult political questions.



Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 06.19.15 at 6:01 pm

Hmm, and what about those “merciless savages” whose land the founding oligarchs intended to possess, as outline in the “Northwest Ordinance,” which preceded the constitution? Settler-colonialism has to be the context for analyzing the Declaration.


Val 06.19.15 at 11:02 pm

Since you (Henry) are giving a kind of outsider perspective here, perhaps it’s a suitable place for me to ask another outsider question: if these are conversations about what the USA is, in some sense, why is no one here talking about the Charleston massacre?


Joshua Holmes 06.20.15 at 12:29 am

This allowed the committee organizers to reframe the Declaration as a “purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government,” cutting out the parts about King George’s unwillingness to assent to laws that might suggest a legitimate role for a legitimate government.

This is silly. Most libertarians do, in fact, believe in a legitimate role for government. Anarchists are loud and influential but still a minority in the libertarian movement.

Treating the words of the founders as a given revelation…introduces another kind of inequality, one in which the voices of men who have been dead for two centuries necessarily prevail over the voices of men and women today. Making the Declaration into “Our” Declaration requires spadework.

Americans are bound together much more by shared ideals than soil, blood, ethnic heritage, etc. The Declaration isn’t invoked to “prevail” over modern people (whatever that means) but to appeal to those shared ideals, often in the service of making the Declaration “ours”, q.v., Douglass, Lincoln, King, etc.




I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.


Stephen 06.20.15 at 12:22 pm

Question asked long ago by an equally opinionated, and passionately anti-slavery, English Tory: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

To which the answer is … well, I couldn’t say myself, but maybe some of the US commentators could answer it?


Rich Puchalsky 06.20.15 at 1:05 pm

For that matter, Douglass visited Ireland: “Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult.”

I think that Langston Hughes also had something valuable to hear on these occasions.


LFC 06.20.15 at 1:28 pm


Stephen 06.20.15 at 5:06 pm

LFC: thanks for the reference, which as you know is a response to comments on Edmund S. Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom”: one of the enormous number of interesting-sounding books I haven’t read. The article itself is largely concerned with restating what we might agree to call Johnson’s Paradox. The only explanation given for resolving the paradox is “There is something about holding hundreds of your fellow humans in inhuman bondage that makes you very averse to even a moderately-strong and powerful central government–especially one that you and your class do not control.”

Well, this raises the question of whether that statement is true of slaveholders in all places, at all times, or only of slaveholders in late-colonial North America. Was it true of slaveholders in the Caribbean colonies, in the Spanish and Portuguese empires in mainland America, in the Dutch East Indies, in the Moslem lands, in classical times? If not, why not?

Has anybody here read ES Morgan’s book? Does it provide a more complex answer?


UserGoogol 06.20.15 at 8:03 pm

3: I think Frederick Douglass’s point was more that America is united by the values of liberty and equality, but merely that it is staggeringly hypocritical about actually implementing those values.


LFC 06.20.15 at 8:28 pm

Stephen @8
I haven’t read Morgan. (I think the point of the link was also that while some of the ‘founders’ were slaveholders, others, such as John Jay, were opposed to slavery and took steps to promote black equality.)

Anyway, I’m not sure how much of a paradox Johnson’s Paradox really is. It’s possible that one comes to value freedom (on some definitions) not only if one is enslaved, but also if one is doing the enslaving. Orlando Patterson’s Freedom (2 vols.) makes an argument (from what I can tell from a cursory perusal) along these lines, although vol.1, which is the one I’ve looked at, deals with the ancient and medieval periods and thus doesn’t reach the 18th cent.


thehersch 06.21.15 at 1:06 am

Anarchists are loud and influential but still a minority in the libertarian movement.

Far from being loud and influential, anarchists are utterly absent from the so-called libertarian movement. I can’t imagine where you’ve spotted them.


Bloix 06.21.15 at 6:12 pm

Wow, this is a thread that derailed from the first comment and then did a few somersaults in the ditch and passed out.

Henry, I haven’t read Allen’s book and therefore there’s a degree of arrogant ignorance in what I’ll say next.

It seems to me that the project that the title “Our Declaration” announces is not the same as a project of recovering what the Declaration meant in its own time.

You can’t have an informed conversation about what the Declaration meant in its own time without discussing Pauline Maier’s American Scripture (1997). Perhaps Allen advances the discussion from Maier’s book. I don’t think, though, that it makes sense to parse the Declaration sentence by sentence and comma by comma if you don’t do it within the context that Maier established.

One point Maier makes is that the Declaration was deeply indebted to prior documents, most importantly the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Drafted in May by George Mason, and adopted by the Virginia legislature in late June, it began, after a brief preamble:

“Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

So. We can either topple Jefferson and erect Mason in his place as a towering genius, or we can recognize that these concepts were widespread and well-accepted Enlightenment principles.

How a legislature of slave-holding Virginia planters managed the cognitive dissonance of voting for this is a puzzle. That is a question worth writing about.

A very different question is raised by the title “Our Declaration”: how it can be interpreted to be meaningful for us. There’s no way to discuss this question without reference to the great re-imagining of the Declaration, beginning in the early 1850’s, by Abraham Lincoln, who turned it into a bulwark of his anti-slavery philosophy. I quoted from his great 1857 speech on the Dred Scott decision in an earlier thread, so I will repeat only the most beautiful and inspiring sentence from it, which should be memorized by schoolchildren:

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

If you want a fuller understanding of Lincoln’s breathtaking achievement in remaking the Declaration, you could do worse than Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg. But you really don’t need anything more than that one sentence for an understanding of the meaning of “Our Declaration.”

It’s true that Lincoln was murdered; that his vision was betrayed for a hundred years; and that hacks and reactionaries have repeatedly attempted to neuter the Declaration and bend it their purposes. It’s true as well that although the Civil Rights movement quoted the Declaration, it wasn’t deeply inspired by it and didn’t remake it. Martin Luther King did use it repeatedly, as in the Dream speech, where he refers to it as a debt that has not been honored:

“they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

I still believe that “Our Declaration” is Lincoln’s Declaration. I don’t see a way to move past him and I don’t see why we would want to. The project that, as far as I can tell, Allen is engaged in is a constitutional project, which is not, for me, what the Declaration is about.

But again, I haven’t read the book, so this may be ignorance talking. Maybe I can read it before this book group is over and I’ll recant.


LFC 06.22.15 at 6:33 pm

A comment or two on the OP.

No one who is even vaguely familiar with some of Henry’s views and interests, either as a result of reading CT or some of his published work, should be too surprised that he emphasizes what is (apparently) Allen’s portrait of the Declaration not as holy writ but as (in the words of the OP) part of an ongoing “democratic conversation.” Henry writes: “A key aspect of equality, for Allen, is the capacity to participate in democratic conversation.” If I recall correctly, this is also one of the main messages of The Priority of Democracy, by Henry’s friends Knight & Johnson, which was the subject of a previous symposium at CT (though K&J phrase the point in slightly different language).

The only slightly surprising, to me, part of the OP is the end, where Henry says in effect (my paraphrase): “yeah, there have been a lot of misguided and/or reactionary readings of the Declaration, but that’s sort of ok, since it’s all part of the democratic conversation.” This seems to gloss over the issue of the different power of different speakers; the only ‘out’ here is the parenthetical phrase “as long as it [i.e., a given reading of the Declaration] is not entirely misguided.”

That, in turn, raises the question of which readings of the Declaration are so misguided as to be beyond the pale, and which readings, while wrong, are just ordinarily wrong and thus contribute to the “democratic conversation.” But the OP ends here, just as, one might suggest, the most interesting questions are being raised.

N.b. Like Bloix, I haven’t read Allen’s book.


LFC 06.23.15 at 2:49 am

P.s. To be fair, the opening of the OP does strongly suggest that the 1951 Committee to Proclaim Liberty’s reading of the Declaration was “entirely misguided.” (Though it doesn’t say that directly.)


EWI 06.23.15 at 6:18 pm

The closest Irish equivalent to the Declaration of Independence, the Proclamation of the Republic, has a vexed status in Irish historical memory.

Let’s not forget the Democratic Programme, either. Of for that matter Robert Emmet’s proclamation, which I doubt Pearse had forgotten.

This was in part because the republican

and socialist, thanks to Connolly (and probably Ceannt and Pearse too).

promises made were never quite delivered on, in part because of Ireland’s civil war, where the losers declared themselves the true heirs of the Proclamation and took up arms on its behalf

whereas the ‘winners’, the FG party to which certain CT contributors belong, engaged in that most time-honoured of traditions – the conservative counter-revolution.

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