Last week I went to the Constitution Center to hear Dr. Danielle Allen of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies discuss her latest book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. She says, “In just 1,337 words, the Declaration changed the course of the modern world, but it is now rarely read from start to finish.”
The Declaration begins:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Her most fascinating point is that the Declaration uses the phrase “separate and equal.” She considers the racist phrase that was popular for so many years “separate BUT equal” to be a corruption of the Declaration’s meaning and intent.
Dr. Allen came to her passion for the Declaration at her childhood dinner table where her parents read it sentence by sentence and discussed each phrase.
When she found herself teaching reading at a community center, she chose the Declaration not only because she loves it, but also because it is short. She thought her students would not object to the time it takes to read.
But, when she came to class, almost nobody had read it. Her students didn’t see why it was relevant to them and to their lives. She found that these adult students responded when she read it to them sentence by sentence and discussed it phrase by phrase, as she had originally learned it. No one is too old to learn from this document, but slow reading is the key.
Dr. Allen went through parts of it during her one-hour talk.
For example, why did the writers say, “when in the course of human events” instead of “here’s what we are doing”? Dr. Allen explained that preambles were important in the early days of our country. They were intended to show the philosophy of the document. The Declaration was to take its place in the flow of time, not just pop out of nowhere.
Now, on July 4, I’m looking for a place to attend an oral reading. I want to keep this document alive, in all its separate and equal phrases.