For well over half a century, William B. Allen has been a fixture in American political thought. His academic work has explored the moral and prudential foundations of the American constitutional order. His writings probe the deliberative thought of our Founders, the words of our founding documents, and the evolution of our national character. Allen is emeritus professor of political philosophy at Michigan State University, where he also served as dean of the James Madison College. He has served as a member of the National Council of the Humanities, as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as the executive director of Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education.
Danielle Allen (Bill Allen’s daughter) has established herself as one of America’s preeminent political theorists and public intellectuals. She is the James Bryant Conant University professor at Harvard University, where she also directs the Edmond and Lilly Safra Center for Ethics. In addition to her notable scholarly contributions on democratic theory, including her influential book “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality,” Danielle Allen has engaged directly with the most challenging issues of the day as a leader in the nonprofit sector and a celebrated Washington Post columnist.
What follows is a wide-ranging conversation with Bill and Danielle Allen moderated by Paul Edwards, director of the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Paul Edwards: Danielle, on more than one occasion in your writing you talk about family dinner table conversations. I’m curious what was your family dinner table like, and were there rituals or traditions within the Allen home as you were growing up?
Bill Allen: There was only one ritual we had and that was the systematic reading of the Bible: two chapters from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament every single night. That was the only ritual, the rest was totally spontaneous. I’m sure Danielle’s recollection is better than mine about that.
Danielle Allen: It’s true we did that. We read our way through the Bible twice, the whole text. I think what we’re also talking about is that my dad, a professor, had an incredible community of graduate students and this community of graduate students were all deeply engaged in questions about the American founding, Constitutionalism, and the prospects for this country. I was a little kid in the middle of all of that and I soaked it up. I loved those conversations.
And then there were also the conversations where our extended family came together, holidays and the like. People always want to know: how do kids become committed to civic engagement? How do we get that motivation to take responsibility for our civic life? And I think part of the answer is family.
I came from a family with deep traditions of civic engagement. My dad’s dad helped found one of the first NAACP chapters in northern Florida, which was exceptionally dangerous work. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather fought for women’s right to vote. My great-grandmother was president of the League of Women Voters in Michigan in the 1930s. There was that sort of deep engagement.
“The magic of the Declaration of Independence is so powerful. It’s a story about a group of people who look around and consider their circumstances not fit for what they deserve in their core human dignity and then seek to do something about it.”
Paul:This was modeled in an extraordinary way in your family. Danielle, were you aware of, for example, your grandfather’s engagement with the NAACP in Florida? Was that part of family lore?
Danielle: I mean, in some sense — not those organizational specifics — but I certainly knew my grandfather. He was a Baptist preacher in the final phase of his career in southern Georgia, and he was a powerful preacher, powerful in the pulpit. He was a proud man, always ramrod straight, and communicated a great sense of commitment to his own community, but also clarity about his own purpose and the responsibility he wanted to take for his world.
Bill: I’m glad you mentioned purpose, Danielle, because I want to clarify something. Paul’s questions seem to be leading to an inquiry into the degree of intentionality that lay at the bottom of development within our family. That, from my perspective, would be a mistaken line or approach to take. It wasn’t a question of intending to form this or that kind of family or intending to engage with this or that kind of activity. It was nothing other than the expression of an acquired and cultivated sense of responsibility and the exploitation of opportunities as they arose.
A lot of this was quite spontaneous, some of it was a response to need. My father’s founding of the NAACP chapter was a response to a need at a certain time, when I was just a wee lad, only three or four years old. So, these are not things that developed as a specific program or agenda set out for the purposes of development in the family at large, they were the things the family fed on as they arose incidentally.
Paul:How did you both come to work on the Declaration of Independence?
Danielle: I was teaching a night program for low-income adults in Chicago. Our goal was to make sure they got the same quality of education as kids in the day program. At that time I taught at the University of Chicago. And that was a puzzle because lots of these night students didn’t have a high school degree and they were working two jobs. My day students, they came with the best pedigrees ever, so how are we going to provide the same quality of education? And the solution was to compromise not at all on the quality of what we were teaching, the quality of the text, but to go ahead and use short texts.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, the Declaration of Independence is only 1,337 words. I was like, it’s a short text, that’s what I’m going to use! I started teaching it over and over again in history and philosophy courses and writing courses. And it just came alive, and my students came alive with a text.
Paul:Now, say more, if you would, about the students that you were teaching in the evening program — their profile, their demographics — tell us about that.
Danielle: We started out with one program but ended up with three around the city. So, by the time we had three, they sort of captured the full demography of the city. The South Side course was mostly African American students, West Side more Hispanic students, North Side more of a mixed group; all folks who were a certain percentage barely above the poverty line. Some of them were working people, just barely scraping by, some of them were on disability, others were just between jobs and trying to find their way back into a course of self-development, of growth.
Every single one of them was there because they had looked around at their circumstances and decided they wanted something different. They had their own personal clarity. Purpose is a response to need, and what they needed was education and they needed a mind-growing education, and not just more skills. Skills, yes, they needed that. But they also wanted to be a full people. They wanted to be civic people and civic participants, that was what led them to our program. That is why the magic of the Declaration of Independence was so powerful; because “Our Declaration” is a story about a group of people who look around and consider their circumstances not fit for what they deserve in their core human dignity and then seek to do something about it.
Paul:There are some today who would say that what came out of the Declaration and what followed created a system of systemic exploitation and racism; but you see it as a liberating document.
Bill: We both found, after spending a great deal of time poring over the Declaration of Independence entirely independently of one another, an inner core of moral equality as the discriminating concept that makes sense and integrates the entire document. Now, discovering that had to take place against the backdrop of an orthodox interpretation about exclusion, to which you are now referring. So, knowing that orthodox backdrop as we did and still being able to find that inner concept that integrates meant that the document, the text, responded to thought. And the important dimension here is the thinking dimension.
Paul:What do you think about the fact that many of the men involved in the creation of the Declaration were slave owners?
Danielle: There’s so much to say on this subject. The Declaration of Independence was a joint effort, it was a collaboration. It was North and South coming together on the committee that was writing the Declaration. John Adams, a man of Massachusetts, was as much an author of the Declaration of Independence as Thomas Jefferson. John Adams never held slaves, never thought that enslavement was acceptable. The language of the Declaration was used by Adams in the Massachusetts Constitution, which was used in Massachusetts before the end of the Revolutionary War to abolish slavery in Massachusetts. So, the Declaration comes as much out of an abolition tradition as it comes out of a Jeffersonian tradition and that is what I meant when I said briefly that this country has always had two voices, at least two. It’s always had a multitude of contesting voices fighting, but that voice of liberty and equality has been there from the beginning.
Bill: What is important to understand is that people who are working in this collaborative environment were indeed navigating multiple differences, diverse interests, and pathways. It is an abolitionist environment as well as an affirming environment on the part of some slave holding. But slave holding was not the engine driving that process. From the beginning it was mixed, it was not set in any linear fashion.
“We both found, after spending a great deal of time poring over the Declaration of Independence, an inner core of moral equality as the discriminating concept that makes sense and integrates the entire document.”
Danielle: It speaks to the importance of choice. Often we wrestle with the question of history and should we or should we not be judging people in the past? And certainly, it’s not ours to judge, that’s for a higher power to do, but nonetheless it’s clear that there have always been moral choices in front of people. Even in the 18th century, it was possible to choose abolition, not enslavement, and that we need to say clearly as much as anything else.
Bill: And I would say even more clearly, because the affirmation of the good and the right is more important to repeat than the evidence of the evil.
Paul:In looking at the ideas animating the Declaration, how do they speak to us today and to our democratic situation? What can you tell us about Americans’ confidence right now in our system and how the Declaration might speak to that?
Danielle: Your question comes from a place we all recognize of how much anxiety and pain we all feel right now as we watch our politics. One of the most important things, that is a challenge for us, is a generational divide. It’s just very painful to me, honestly, that for those on college campuses now, the only world you’ve known is one in which we are fighting so bitterly with each other. I know that when people from my generation say things like, “Wow, we did actually used to know how to compromise,” it rings false. How could such a thing have existed? It sounds nostalgic. It’s important for us to set our faces to the future and figure out how we secure a healthy democracy for the 21st century on 21st century terms.
But I want to just give you a little piece of the Declaration because I think it can animate that work and that thinking. But I have to give you the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence and invite you to carry it around with you and just spend time thinking about it:
“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 principle and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
How many of us remembered that that sentence was that long? It is that long. It doesn’t stop after “pursuit of happiness.” The whole sentence leads to our responsibilities for what we do together for our safety and happiness and responsibility. It puts them on our shoulders to diagnose whether we are building together instruments of shared decision making that can deliver in that way for us. It’s an invitation to thought. And I believe that invitation is how the Declaration can animate the work we need to do for our democracy now.
As you’ve spoken to them, may I speak to their elders? I want to reassure the elders who may be the ones most anxious about the survival of the experiment that they needn’t spend much time reflecting on that. For it is not an experiment, it is a fact. There has been quite enough time and quite enough accomplished since the Declaration of Independence to have established the reality of the United States and the principles upon which it was founded. They may have considered it an experiment at the time; we do not have that luxury. We have, in fact, the burden of knowing that if it does fail, it won’t fail because the experiment failed, but because we failed.