The Declaration of Independence: The Ultimate Self-Help Guide

Danielle Allen, author of "Our Declaration," is a political philosopher who’s taught the Declaration of Independence at some of our nation’s most elite universities, including Harvard and Princeton. In those classrooms, she says students often read the Declaration almost to check off a box. For them, this classic text is little more than an assignment. But when teaching the Declaration in a Chicago night school—where many students hovered around the poverty line—she found a completely different way to read the document: self-improvement. These students wanted to know how the Declaration could make their lives better. When Allen was in town for an event at the Center for the Humanities, she told Steve Paulson why that old text still has so much resonance today.

Could the Declaration make these students’ lives better?

Absolutely. That was the brilliant thing about the Declaration—it’s core argument is very simple. Human beings need to look around, diagnose their circumstances, figure out whether things are going well or badly for them, and if they are going badly, choose a course of action, come up with the reasons, justify it and share that justification.

So my night students got the kernal of the Declaration a lot faster than any other students I’ve seen. What the Declaration offers is a certain kind of rigor of analysis. What’s your diagnosis of your circumstances? What do you propose to do about it? How do you justify it? Three steps. So I think they found it very empowering. What was the different kind of course they wanted to set? How would they justify it.

Really? So it actually had practical value?

That’s right. And the practical value ranged from students who then felt empowered to do things like ask their boss for a raise. So there are a whole range of ways in which empowerment matters, it doesn’t have to be that you’re taking on the whole system all at once. Sometimes it was deciding to make a change of residence, sometimes it was a decision to leave a partner, actually, and to free oneself from a set of abusive relations in order to have a fresh starting point.

But you’re saying some people actually came to those conclusions after talking about the Declaration of Independence in your class?

I’m not saying the Declaration is the only part of that story, and I would never want to claim something like that, but yes, I did have students come back to me and say, "There is this big life decision that I was wrestling with, and reading the Declaration and thinking about it with you helped me clarify my choices.

Now I would think that some of your students would’ve said, ‘You know, the main author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveholder. The founding fathers created a legal system that justified slavery, this oppressive institution. This history not have anything to do with me, or if it does, it was in a very bad way.’

That is exactly where most of my students started. You put your finger on it. They were mostly poor people, mostly students of color, and they did connect it to dead, white, male slaveowners. So its a real question: how do you get past that? That’s where I think the Declaration is so profound as a text. Because its story is most fundamentally about the effort of people to change their lives.

Reclaiming the Declaration of Independence

Have you ever read the Declaration of Independence? You'll find it's a surprisingly radical manifesto even today, as we struggle with income inequality and racial justice. Political philosopher Danielle Allen says reading the Declaration has actually changed the lives of her students.

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