by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As fundamental as the Declaration of Independence has been to our nation’s political history, it’s surprising how few people have taken the time to read its 1,337 words and study them closely.
Political philosopher and social science professor Danielle Allen deserves credit for taking on that task and expounding upon the results in her book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Readers will find much thought-provoking material in Allen’s easy-to-read work, though fans of limited government are unlikely to agree with her results.
The subtitle hints at one key area in which Allen’s analysis falls flat: She argues that equality is more important than freedom and claims the Founders realized this notion, too. Her evidence? The Declaration’s concluding remarks about the signers’ agreement to pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to each other. Allen seems to leap from that pledge to a notion that the signers — and anyone else who agreed with them — actually had agreed to throw their lives and fortunes together in a common pool under the control of an as-yet-undefined new government. The Founders were full-fledged socialists. Who knew?
Nonetheless, Allen’s book is well worth reading. She reminds us that the Declaration did not spring from the mind of Thomas Jefferson. While primarily responsible for the work, Jefferson worked with John Adams and a committee to finish a document worth presenting to the Continental Congress as a whole. And these weren’t the only people who influenced the Declaration’s final form.
Yet for all the influence that Adams and Jefferson had on the final state of the text, the printers and calligrapher were able to add their own voices to the Declaration. We have already seen how Goddard’s printing house cast all the words for God in uppercase. Matlack also made his mark, adding color and emphasis, and interpretive layers, as he drew up the formal parchment document.
No mere functionary, or mindless bureaucrat, the Philadelphia native Matlack was himself committed to the cause of independence. When not working in Congress that summer, he could be found at the head of a battalion on New Jersey battlefields or participating in Philadelphia at mass meetings and conventions that were moving toward producing a new constitution for Pennsylvania. … Squeezing his work on the Declaration in amid duties to city and state, and editorializing on the parchment with capitalization, punctuation, and flourishes, Matlack too helped to write the Declaration.
Allen goes a bit overboard in making the case that the Declaration is an example of “democratic writing,” but readers will enjoy approaching one of the nation’s founding documents from a different perspective.