Episode 018: Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality

Our Declaration.indd

Do you know who authored the Declaration of Independence?

If you answered “Thomas Jefferson,” you would be wrong.

Jefferson merely composed the first draft of a document others created.

In this episode, Danielle Allen, Foundation Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study and author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, leads us on an exploration of the Declaration of Independence.


About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with an historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Episode Summary

In this episode, we explore the Declaration of Independence with Danielle Allen, Foundation Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study and author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

Danielle AllenDanielle will take us through the Declaration of Independence and the context surrounding its creation.

She will reveal how New Hampshire’s need for a government in 1776 prompted the Continental Congress to start writing the Declaration; How Thomas Jefferson merely composed the first draft of a document authored by many people; and how undertaking a slow reading of the Declaration of Independence will help us understand and unlock all of the ideas contained within it.

Danielle also talks us through the practice of slow reading and provides us with tips for how we can apply the practice to our reading of the Declaration of Independence.


What You’ll Discover

  • What a political theorist is and what they study
  • Why Danielle undertook a close study of the Declaration of Independence
  • Why we don’t need a lot of historical context to read and understand the Declaration of Independence
  • How New Hampshire’s need for a government in 1776 led the Continental Congress to commence writing the Declaration of Independence
  • Remember the LadiesHow you can experience the fear and tension of the American Revolution by reading the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams
  • Who really authored the Declaration of Independence
  • The “distinctive art of group writing”
  • How you can see group writing in the Declaration of Independence
  • The role 4 printers played in the authorship of the Declaration of Independence
  • The important role punctuation plays in the Declaration of Independence
  • What the practice of slow reading is and how applying the practice to the Declaration of Independence helps us understand the document
  • How the Declaration of Independence conveys 5 ideas about equality when the document uses the word “equal” two times
  • How we can reconcile the fact that the Declaration of Independence says a lot about equality and yet its authors did not necessarily intend to extend equality to all people
  • The intertwined nature of the ideas of freedom and equality
  • Why present-day Americans feel the need to choose between freedom or equality rather than insisting upon both


Links to People, Places, and Publications


Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

  • What might have happened if the Committee of Five and the full Continental Congress had allowed Thomas Jefferson to keep his anti-slavery lines in the Declaration of Independence?


Questions, Comments, Suggestions

Do you have a question, comment, or suggestion?

Get in Touch! Send me an e-mail, tweet, or leave a comment.



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Enter the Our Declaration Book Giveaway

Contest ends Monday, March 9, 2015 at 6pm EST.

Step 1: Click on the link to either the John and Abigail Adams correspondence or the Journals of the Continental Congress

Step 2: Select and read 1 letter or journal entry

Step 3: Leave a comment below that tells us about the letter or journal entry you read

Step 4: Leave your comments before 6pm EST on March 9, 2015

Winner will be selected at random and announced in Poor Richard’s Club, our private social community on Facebook.

Get access to Poor Richard's Club by signing up for ‘The Franklin Gazette,” see sign-up form below.

*Picture of Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

  • I began reading some of the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams after he was sent to France in 1778. Sadly, they seemed to not receive each other’s letters, which distressed them both.

    A letter John Adams sent to Abigail on 3 June 1778 expresses his concern that he hasn’t heard from her since he left on 13 February. This letter praises Paris and I think his comments still apply, “It is one great Garden. Nature and Art have conspired to render every Thing here delightful.”

    Next, he imagines Abigail’s response, “Religion and Government, you will say ought to be excepted.” I connected with this because how often do we imagine a conversation with a loved one who is not there? He has not spoken to Abigail in months and he’s inventing a conversation.

    True to the ideals of the revolution, he goes on to say the Relgion and Government of France does not bother him “because I have well fixed it in my Mind as a Principle, that every Nation has a Right to that Religion and Government, which it chooses, and as long as the People please themselves in these great Points, I am determined they shall not displease me.” I appreciate this “live and let live” attitude, but also find it interesting he wrote this on the eve of the French Revolution.

    He ends his letter with a rant against Luxury and warns his country men to not become a victim of the tyranny of luxuries like gold, silver, lace, marble, silk, etc.

    • This sounds like an interesting letter. Thanks for sharing April!

      I know Silas Deane often complained of his inability to send and receive mail to the Continental Congress. The British Navy often intercepted transports and ships trying to enter American ports during the War for Independence.

      • John Adams mentioned in the letter that he didn’t write more details about France in case the letter was intercepted. I wondered how we have copies of those lost letters, but it seems John Adams dutifully copied all of his outgoing letters. What a chore! Handwriting letters always seemed a monumental task to me when I was younger. I felt such a sense of accomplishment when I had finished. I don’t know if I would have had it in me to write a copy, too.

        • Glad to hear you’re all enjoying the candid and colorful exchanges between John and Abigail Adams. Fortunately, we have many extant, which were carefully preserved by the family before arriving at the Massachusetts Historical Society at the turn of the 20th century. During his service in the Continental Congress, John began to retain copies of his outgoing correspondence in a series of letterbooks. When we prepare these documents for publication, we compare closely and designate clearly the recipient copy (or RC, always the first choice to publish, since that’s what was received and acted upon) and the letterbook copy (or LbC). It’s worth noting that only rarely did John’s LbC’s differ from the final version received–maybe a few tweaks in wording here or there. Read all about it here: http://masshist.org/adams/?goto=adams

          • Thanks for posting the link, Sara. I find the letters fascinating. What a treasure! The letters give us insight into who Abigail and John Adams were in their every day lives. I think anyone interested in history would love to spend an hour or two getting to know these important people. The letters at least give us something to humanize them.

            In the mid-19th century, a man studying his family genealogy, managed to print copies of letters my ancestor wrote to his brother-in-law. We don’t know if the originals are still out there somewhere, but we’re glad to have the copies. My ancestor wrote about serving in the South Carolina Provisional Congress. He complained about the distance he had to travel and added, “but anything before slavery.” With the letter, we know a little about how he felt regarding his service. I’m sure it was inconvenient for him to leave his farm and family for months (he lived in York and had to travel to Charleston). I don’t think I would have thought about it without the letter.

  • I read the June 30, 1774 letter of John to Abigail. It’s fascinating that being a justice of the peace (which I take to mean “judge”) was a distinct “acquistion” that it corrupts men.

    John also speaks of “private affairs” which strike me as completely gossipy. One must be “obsequious” to be a clerk? Lickspittles have existed throughout history, it seems.

    It’s charming that John was worried about his children and business affaris. Make him seem more human.

    • Hi John, Thanks for participating. You are partly right in your assessment of the functions of a justice of the peace. Justices of the peace were not judges per se, but they had the power to keep the peace in society by rendering judgement in very minor disputes. Their primary function was to settle town disputes and keep the peace in the community. They were kind of like police officers. They often recorded testimony in the form of depositions.

      • Huh! That’s fascinating! When did we move away from the justice of the peace system? Is there a particular reason why?

        • I am not sure. I will pose the questions to my colleagues and get back to you. We still have JPs, but we use them differently.

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