I reveled in this book -- I highly recommend it -- yet I'm conflicted because it did not quite succeed at convincing me that the Declaration of Independence should be read as a ringing endorsement of human equality. (I have linked to the document's text because, as Allen points out, most of us have never read the entirety of this short document; we invoke it, but our education seldom includes reading it.)
Allen acquired her understanding of the Declaration through teaching and discussing it with University of Chicago students and adult, working, night students. Their discussions formed her vision of what this founding document might mean to us today.
As a mixed-race woman, Allen is perfectly well aware that the Declaration's authors -- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the other propertied gentlemen of the Continental Congress -- could not envision freedom or equality that included her. Yet she is certain that their creation -- their collective "democratic writing" -- nonetheless speaks philosophical truths that go beyond their particular circumstances and very much to include all of us.
I just can't follow Allen to this conclusion. By instinct and by education, I think like an historian, determined to understand as much as possible the context that shaped a document from the past in its particular time. The past was then; this is now. My thought emerges from now and it is through the vantage point of now that I see the past. Knowing this, I deeply distrust my own instinct to assimilate the actions and thinking of people in the past into my contemporary reality.
Allen is a philosopher; she looks for the principles that undergird the temporal particularity of the Declaration.
And so, for her, the Declaration becomes a grand testimony to equality.
I want to believe her, but I can't locate this insight in the Declaration. I can agree with the conclusion here, but I have to get there through the struggles of my own time, not through this more than 200 year old document. Fortunately, no time lacks struggles toward justice for all, if we dare to see them.