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Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality
I have provided a few thoughts on Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence* in Defense of Equality, but will provide a more extended set of remarks here. First, I will mainly provide a few things that the book does not really touch upon, then some it does. As the author notes, a "slow reading" approach provides us with much to ponder, and though it helps (and she provides some), insight and meaning is found even without special historical knowledge. This is so even for the "train of abuses," though there is special fact based claims raised.
One thing that is noted by some is that "natural rights" are vague and dubious things, things deemed obvious to some, but not others. This to me does provide a demand for caution as well as making these things"political questions" in many ways. That is, judicial review based on court determinations of "natural rights" alone is somewhat dubious. OTOH, the concept can provide a helping hand when other things are present, such as precedent and societal practice. Anyway, the document says "We" hold these truths; that is, not just anyone. A certain community.
Others might see things in a somewhat different way. Our own experience is at issue. The book interprets "self-evident" in an interesting way. It often is thought to mean "obvious," when some of these things were not. After all, others think different forms of government are best. But, Allen interprets it to be things we can determine for ourselves by use of reason. As a person who studied classic Greek philosophers (including fans of potlucks), this was a good fit for her. And, here "we," specifically those behind the text as well as those they represented, are doing the reasoning.
The book spent a lot of time with various words in the document and many chapters with the first sentence, one many skip over to get to what is seen as "the good stuff." I think she rushes a bit at the end, including the right of the states to have various aspects of sovereignty summed up at the end as "to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do." The last part came to mind various times the last few years when our nation was accused of human rights violations. That is, nations "may of right" do a lot of things, but not torture. The phrasing to me includes a limiting principle, which is also the idea of the document -- sovereigns do not have unlimited power. They "may of right" not do everything.
The focus on words (e.g., interesting thought "in the Course of human events" -- capitalization in editing -- was a water metaphor well used at the time, seeing our life as like a river flowing) provides some thoughtful reading. The book does not focus on the to many readers' eyes curious word "unalienable" -- this is a bit strange, since it seems noteworthy to focus on a word of such caliber. It confuses some since the rights seem "alienable" (slaves had little liberty) though denial of rights does not mean they are not existent - the problem is that they are being unenforced.
[ETA: The book touches upon the usage of "pursuit of happiness" over "property" somewhat, including John Adams' focus on "happiness," but one other thing it doesn't focus on -- perhaps things like the symbolism of "course" is less familiar to various accounts -- is the aspects of "life," "liberty" and "pursuit of happiness." The book, as noted by the title, is also particularly about equality though its overall intent is to provide a full interpretation of the document as a whole. But, like other things, there is so much there, and covering everything in a medium size work (many useful photos fill a lot of space) particularly is unlikely to be comprehensive.]
The book doesn't focus too much on the use of "God" in the document, noting that most of the references came from the editors, a reminder that the document was not only from Jefferson's hands (other than the removal of an "abuse" regarding the slave trade, the other major change might be said to be cutting out some overblown, at times sentimental, language). A major criticism of some is the idea the rights come from God. But, she does not find this a major concern -- either the rights are from God/nature or they are matters so important to our happiness that it is unjust to deny them. And, this is at times what "natural" rights amount to, basically, fundamental rights of high importance, not necessarily those handed down from God.
I share this sentiment and along with the realization that specifics will basically be the jobs of positive legislative and societal action to work thru (e.g., there is a basic right of self-government, parliamentary government is working things out as compared to our tripartite system). Another thing some scorn is that the document has lovely ideas that weren't put into action in various ways. Slavery, you know. The author, a biracial woman, is realistic about this. She notes that ideas do not override habit and practice all at once, but it can provide an opening. And, it did -- multiple states did begin to end slavery, Massachusetts doing so in the 1780s. The ideas also are seeds and Alexander Tsesis wrote a good book on how social movements thorough our history (and other nations too -- this book cites how the DOI influenced Indian independence from Britain). The footnote notes how a bit of punctuation interrupts the flow of the second sentence that connects rights to government to the validity of starting anew. The sentence also is central to the author's five prongs of equality, which is found in various parts of the document, and shows that equality is a necessary part of its principle of liberty. Equality and liberty are often seen as concepts in conflict, but they can be a key symbiosis too. This is seen in a somewhat related context where due process (including its "liberty" interest) and equal protection is deemed as interlocked:
Equality of treatment and the due process right to demand respect
for conduct protected by the substantive guarantee of liberty are linked
in important respects, and a decision on the latter point advances both
interests. If protected conduct is made criminal and the law which
does so remains unexamined for its substantive validity, its stigma
might remain even if it were not enforceable as drawn for equal
protection reasons. When homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law
of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to
subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in
the private spheres. The central holding of Bowers has been
brought in question by this case, and it should be addressed. Its
continuance as precedent demeans the lives of homosexual persons.
The very first sentence of the DOI brings equality into the field in announcing the "one people" (Allen argues "people" is used in the sense of a "political group" -- left unsaid is the claim by some that this exempts slaves) are arguing a right to "separate and equal station" with other nations (peoples). The states were claiming equality as a people from domination from others. Any particular subset? No, all of them. I would -- though it isn't unique to me -- cite the Fourteenth Amendment, which speaks of one citizenship. All persons could be citizens. It isn't a white only deal.
The basic equal freedom from domination is a basic definition of "liberty," one each person has an equal right to on some baseline level. Next, there is an equal right to access to the government to "secure" our rights, going back to that second sentence. Since she does it repeatedly, I guess it only proper here to at least once quote the text we are dealing with here:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness --That
to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any
Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of
the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,
laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in
such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and
I removed the "extra" period. As she notes, there is a problem when the rich routinely get more protection from the government. The principle of the document used to justify our independence (a form of "memo," using the traditional meaning of that word) provides a more egalitarian duty of government to secure the rights of "all men" (as an aside, the author notes the deleted slave trade section, "men" is used in a way to cover all slaves, that is, collectively -- women have rights too). This can go to how we should treat something like the proper regulation of campaign funding and other matters.
The third facet of equality discussed is the use of each person to gain the intelligence needed to uphold our liberty. The DOI notes "the colonies" suffered various abuses, "we" petitioned in face of abuses, "our" connections to Britain is cited etc. The book discussed how the representatives to the Continental Congress actively sought from the people intelligence of the wrongs done against them by the British. The First Amendment not only provides a right to petition but an implicit obligation for petitions to be honored to the degree at least of an honest hearing.
The next aspect of equality is a sense of reciprocity. The nifty way the book shows how equality is infused throughout the document, not just in the "created equal" phrase is shown here too as is its use of down to earth comparisons the average reader would find relatable. Here it is that when a friend does something wrong, you would feel it proper to feel wronged, particualarly when the actions suggests lack of equal respect. The DOI:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in
the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only
by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act
which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
IOW, the colonialists informed the British king and Parliament of what they deemed were injustices done to our people. But, instead of a respectful hearing that honors some basic equality (even if a king in various ways is of special importance, something our ban of titles of nobility addressed), or ideally some redress, the colonialist just had the worst of it. It is as if you complain to a friend or family member of their rudeness and they laugh at you and demean you, making it as if you should feel bad and be punished.
The final aspect of equality is our shared ownership of public life. The book repeatedly showed how the document and independence as a whole was a group effort. Thomas Jefferson or George Washington alone did not write or create either. Unanimity of all the colonies had been deemed necessary to be obtained among all the states for independence to be declared. The document is of a collective nature -- "We" -- this is seen as well in the Constitution -- "We the People." Each citizen of age generally (felony disenfranchisement laws continue to be a major problem here) vote, take part in juries and have a right and duty as good citizens to speak out and contribute. Each person in their own way have a role to play.
The need and abilities of humans from birth (e.g., the intelligence of humans and social abilities as compared to other animals) provide evidence here that these things are in some fashion a basic nature of our "creation." It is as she notes an expression of a basic human need and justice warrants protections of rights here, which to me are in effect human creations in some fashion -- that is, to be blunt, I don't think they are a creation of the divine. Life in nature might provide certain possibilities just as men and women "unite" in some sense, but like "marriage" is in a full sense a human institution, so are "right." All the same, as a baseline, the DOI provides a pretty decent expression of the basics.
And, the five strands of equality Danielle Allen gathers from the DOI is well expressed as well. Again, I found the book on the whole excellent.
* The author argues that the placement of the period (.) after "happiness" in this copy is incorrect, and that though a printer eventually did put it there, it was not faithful to earlier intent. Or, the overall logic of the original extended sentence that connects unalienable rights to government and independence to a government not properly protecting it.
It wrongly promotes a sort of libertarian stand alone principle when the true nature of the idea expressed in more let's say republican governmental in nature. I think the author has a point though the overall idea is not lost either way. Governments are created to "secure" our rights and this involves not just "liberty from" but "liberty to," including benefits. Even then, there were minimal welfare measures. Plus courts etc.
One theme of the book is that so many people and groups were involved in production of the document in front of us, which advances the equality theme. This includes more than a clerk and printer, both of whom were responsibility for the look of the document, including capitalization and punctuation that has some effect. The book does not talk about the fact the publisher here in particular was a woman, that is, give a snapshot of her biography or such. A bit curious but you can't include everything, I guess.