The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough

by James Lindley Wilson on June 22, 2015

One of the pleasures of reading Our Declaration is encountering Danielle Allen’s thoughtful expression and development of an ideal of political equality. The book not only argues that political equality was a central component of the Declaration of Independence, but argues—powerfully, I think—that this democratic ideal ought to compel us, the readers of the Declaration and of Allen’s book.

Allen gives strong voice to the argument that political equality is valuable in its own right, and valuable because of other goods it brings, like liberty or prosperity. But what exactly is this ideal? Roughly, as I understand it, the idea behind political equality is that all citizens are, and ought to be treated as, equally authoritative over matters of common life. Even more roughly: in a democracy, we’re all supposed to be equally in charge. But what does that mean? What kind of equality is this? Why should we care about it? Over the course of Our Declaration, Allen addresses all of these questions, explaining the “multi-faceted” ideal of equality presented by the Declaration, and—in part by explaining just what this equality is—showing us why it matters.

For all of Allen’s meticulous interpretive work, however, I have doubts about the extent to which the Declaration expresses a vigorous conception of political equality. Accordingly, any democratic ideal we develop on the basis of a reading of the Declaration will need much more egalitarian amendment and elaboration than Allen suggests. First, I am not sure that the most clearly egalitarian aspects of the Declaration’s text involve a strong commitment to political equality, as opposed to other forms of equality less connected citizens’ equal authority over their common life. Second, some of the facets of equality Allen identifies strike me as better described as norms of political inclusion than political equality. Inclusion is a weaker norm than equality because inclusion of citizens in decision-making can (and did) occur on unequal terms. Finally, any argument about ideals of political equality expressed by the Declaration must deal with the outright exclusion of some people from the process of “democratic writing” that issued in the Declaration and from subsequent application of its ideals in independent America. Allen is well aware of these exclusions, and she treats this issue in some of the book’s most searching, thoughtful, and even moving passages. But perhaps more than Allen, I believe that such exclusions limit the extent to which we can identify the Declaration of Independence as expressing a fully egalitarian ideal even for the people it does clearly include within its vision of freedom and equality. [click to continue…]