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The radicalism of the American Revolution — and its lessons for today

Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen discusses the US’s founding, prison abolition, and the future of democracy.

A framed image of the Declaration of Independence.
Danielle Allen will change how you think about the Declaration of Independence.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

My first conversation with Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen on The Ezra Klein Show in fall 2019 was one of my all-time favorites. I didn’t expect to have Allen on again so soon, but her work is unusually relevant to our current moment.

Allen has written an entire book about the deeper argument of the Declaration of Independence and the way our superficial reading and folk history of the document obscures its radicalism. (It’ll make you look at July Fourth in a whole new way.) Her most recent book, Cuz, is a searing indictment of the American criminal justice system, driven by watching her cousin go through it and motivated by his murder.

Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which Allen directs, has released the most comprehensive, operational road map for mobilizing and reopening the US economy amid the Covid-19 crisis. And to top it all off, a two-year bipartisan commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which Allen co-chaired, recently released a report with more than 30 recommendations on how to reform American democracy — and they’re very, very good.

This is a wide-ranging conversation for a wide-ranging moment. Allen and I discuss what “all men are created equal” really means, why the myth of Thomas Jefferson’s sole authorship of the Declaration of Independence muddies its message, the role of police brutality in the American Revolution, democracy reforms such as ranked-choice voting, DC statehood, mandatory voting, how to deal with a Republican Party that opposes expanding democracy, the case for prison abolition, the various pandemic response paths before us, the failure of political leadership in this moment, and much more.

An edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

What do we get wrong about the Declaration of Independence?

Danielle Allen

The first thing we get wrong is the notion that we should focus on Thomas Jefferson as the author. He put on his tombstone “author, the Declaration of Independence.” That was a real self-aggrandizing gesture. In fact, he was just the scribe. The intellectual work of the declaration was driven significantly by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

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.

Ezra Klein

That’s a corrective to something that I’ve bought into myself, which is that the central story of the Declaration of Independence is one of hypocrisy — at the same time these beautiful ideals were being written, they were being betrayed. What you seem to be saying is that this story is only partial — that feeding into the Declaration Independence was conscious abolitionist intent.

Danielle Allen

Yes, there was already conscious abolitionist intention by the 1770s. The person who is famous for having coined the “no taxation without representation” argument, James Otis, had already in 1760 written a powerful pamphlet against enslavement. So there was a strand of revolutionary thought that worked its way all the way through to seeing the need for the end of enslavement. Thomas Paine was another figure of whom that’s true.

That’s not to say that they were awfully egalitarian. John Adams was also explicit that while he thought that the sort of universal rights [in] the declaration applied to everybody — men, women, poor people, people of color — he also was convinced that nonetheless, power should be left in the hands of white men with property. He had this paradoxical view that the institution should secure well-being and rights for everybody, but that the responsibility for securing those rights should lie with white men with property.

So there is a sort of bifurcation between this notion that rights pertain to everybody and the question of who would actually have access to political power and be able to control political institutions.

Ezra Klein

What do you mean when you say the declaration is “best read as an ordinary memo”?

Danielle Allen

At the end of the day, human life and human organization depends on people being able to coordinate around a shared plan. And in order to coordinate around a shared plan, you have to make that plan memorable.

That was the job of the Decoration of Independence. They had this set of colonies with extended lines of communication where it could take weeks for a message to travel from the north to the south end, and they needed somehow to be able to move together. So they had a moment of punctuation that memorialized for everybody what their purpose was: What were they trying to do together?

That’s the sense in which it’s a memo. Memo is short for the Latin word memorandum, which is the thing that must be remembered. That’s the sense in which it’s just like any other ordinary office memo that’s seeking to coordinate the actions of disparate people.

Ezra Klein

In your view, what does the memo say? What is the argument the declaration actually makes?

Danielle Allen

It’s pretty straightforward. It’s a group of people who look around and say, we don’t like this world. So it starts, “When in the course of human events.” It’s a diagnosis of a problematic state of affairs.

The problematic state of affairs is that the British government is not securing the rights of the colonists as they understood them. They understood their rights through a long history of thinking about the rights of Englishmen. Specifically, they thought the crown was violating those rights, and they sought an alternative. They had pursued petitions for change internally to the system for a long time, and after 10 years of efforts, they’d reached the point where they thought it was time to start something new.

So it’s a diagnosis and a prescription of a forward path based on independence. It’s also a justification of that self-governing action, that choice of their own, on the grounds that human beings are best off when they can govern themselves.

Ezra Klein

One of the arguments you make in the book is that the declaration is often read as an argument for freedom over equality, but, in your view, its fundamental point is that there is no freedom in the absence of equality. Can you talk about how one of those views came to predominate over the other and why you hold the one you do?

Danielle Allen

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.

Ezra Klein

Let’s hold on that idea of political equality versus economic equality. When people hear “we’re all created equal” or “we all are equal,” the mind naturally jumps to the places where we’re not. Some people are taller than others. Some people are born into a different station than others. The list goes on.

Your argument in the book is that equality here means something different — it’s a way of relating to one another, not a way of equalizing against each other. Can you talk about what that difference is?

Danielle Allen

We’re all not the same, but we are equal in some fundamental respects. The most important way in which we’re equal is that we are all creatures who proceed through our day trying to make tomorrow better than yesterday, and seeking to shape a life course that delivers to us a sense of well-being. So we’re all equal in being judges of our circumstances and seekers of a pathway to a more flourishing tomorrow than we had yesterday. That in itself — the fact that we can judge our circumstances and diagnose them and see solutions to a better future — makes us political creatures and makes us people who want to control our surroundings. That’s what we all share.

In order for that to be activated for all human beings, we need an opportunity to participate in political institutions that tap into that human capacity. As we participate in our shared institutions, will bring a variety of different kinds of resources to that process. We have different interests. We have different capacities. We have different experiences that build out different perspectives. So there’s this huge diversity of what we can all bring to the process of judging together about the shape of our future. But it is that judging that we all have the capacity for and that we all have a right to participate in.

Ezra Klein

Do you see any parallels between the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the American Revolution?

Danielle Allen

The American Revolution was massively fueled by resentment of the arbitrary use of police power on the part of the British. The writs of assistance, for example, in Boston were rules that gave British customs officers the right to search people without any specific reason for searching them. It was stop-and-frisk in the 18th century, basically.

In other words, 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.

There’s a strong sense of what it means to have invested public authorities with power. Why do we invest them with power? Mainly so they can secure our rights. So when the power is turned around and not used to secure our rights, then the social contract itself, the original compact, has been breached.

So I think everything we’re watching is fully recognizable and understandable in the original terms of the revolution and the declaration and Constitution.

Ezra Klein

Is there a tension in the way America views itself in terms of how we celebrate the moment of revolution and the ultimately violent uprisings that met the abuse of British power against Americans — and the fact that there is intense pressure to keep the protests today peaceful, and any deviation from that is seen as inherently illegitimate?

Danielle Allen

I think there’s a necessary tension that comes out of being a society born in revolution. At the end of the day, to be a successful society is to avoid revolution. So we have to celebrate as our origin something that every society also wishes to avoid.

In the Declaration of Independence, there’s this distinction drawn between altering the government and abolishing it and establishing a new one. That distinction in the declaration is used to justify a full-scale revolution, but it simultaneously points to the idea that the sustainability of constitutional democracy is going to have to focus instead on this concept of alteration.

So the question really is, can you achieve internal capacity in your institutions and social structures to make alteration a real possibility from one generation to the next?

We should all know from the get-go that we live in a world that has made an alteration one of its fundamental necessities in an ongoing way. And I think that’s the kind of proposition being tested now. It’s past due time for alteration in our administration of justice, in our approach to public safety. So let’s figure out what capacity for alteration we have.