Slow Reading as a Practice of Reckoning with Love and Loss

Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration is a generous and meticulous work of democratic theory. The book’s origin speaks powerfully to its ambitions: Allen’s decision to teach canonical works to elite students at the University of Chicago while simultaneously teaching the same texts to working-class Chicagoans attending night school demonstrates the author’s belief that no one is ineligible or exempt from theorizing — from reflecting on and thinking with others about the principles and values that ought to guide our individual and collective existence. This democratic conviction — that our collective flourishing is tied to the capacity of individuals and collectivities to think wisely, act creatively, and judge well — is central to the book’s subtitle: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

In titling the book a defense of equality, Allen is taking issue with a tradition in political philosophy that “equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other.”[1] By this logic, freedom and equality represent a zero-sum game in which equality for the majority necessarily involves impinging on others’ freedom. Here, the quest for equality is dangerously linked to the tendency to limit the greatness of some in order to create equality for all. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville referred to this as the “leveling” effects of equality:

Almost all salient characteristics are obliterated to make room for something average, less high and less low, less brilliant and less dim, than what the world had before.

When I survey this countless multitude of beings, shaped in each other’s likeness, among whom nothing stands out or falls unduly low, the sight of such universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to regret that state of society which has ceased to be.[2]

For Tocqueville, while democratic peoples have a “natural taste for liberty, their passion for equality is “ardent, insatiable, eternal and invincible. They want equality in freedom and if they cannot have that, they still want equality in slavery.”[3] Authors ranging from Ayn Rand to Kurt Vonnegut would pick up this theme, linking the predilection for equality with dystopian visions of collectivism run amok — worlds where the exceptional are oppressed in favor of the mediocre. Not surprisingly, arguments about equality become particularly heated when dealing with the distribution of what are understood to be limited resources in areas such as education, housing, and employment. Debates over affirmative action are a classic example of this dynamic.

Rather than accept this false choice between excellence and equality, Allen shifts the reader’s focus to what she identifies as the Declaration’s five facets of equality. Central to this claim is the idea that “equality is the bedrock of freedom.”[4] Here, she champions equality as:

co-creation, where many people participate equally in creating a world together.… The point of political equality, then, is not merely to secure spaces free from domination but also to engage all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly re-creating that community.[5]

In pushing back against the image of equality as the loss of excellence, Allen shifts her reader’s focus to equality as the sharing of ownership in public life. In making this move, Our Declaration reminds us that America’s problem has never been that it suffers from too much equality. If anything, it is the lack of equality that has been (and continues to be) the biggest threat to justice — particularly the inability of all Americans to participate equally as co-creators of “a shared world in which all can flourish.”[6]

This commitment to collective human flourishing is one of Our Declaration’s most appealing aspects. Describing her experience reading the Declaration with her night-school students, Allen writes:

It’s a cliché to say that we fell in love, but we did. Its words became necessary for us; they became our Declaration. Through reading them slowly, we came into our inheritance: an understanding of freedom and equality, and the value of finding the right words.[7]

Now I wanted to teach them the Declaration itself for its own sake. I wanted my students to claim the text. They were so much in need of it. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves.… I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence. I want that for you too, because the Declaration is also yours.[8]

In asking her readers to claim the Declaration, Allen is urging them to claim their democratic patrimony, taking up their rightful place in public life. Moreover, in claiming the founding, the hope is that readers of the Declaration will fall in love with American democracy, becoming empowered subjects imbued with a sense of power and belonging. Claiming the text, the aim is that readers will experience a newfound sense becoming a “we” — a people.

This, of course, raises larger questions: What does civic belonging feel like? Must it feel like love? What other emotions might be conjured through an extended engagement with the Declaration?

In posing these questions, I want to build on Allen’s suggestion that to really appreciate and understand the Declaration, it must be read slowly. I believe her emphasis on slow and close reading could be expanded to include the effort to linger over the difficult mix of emotions that reading the Declaration raises. In other words, in lingering over the founders’ words, readers should strive to cultivate a democratic sensibility capable of tarrying with their range of feelings about the founding — feelings such as anger, disappointment, alienation, sorrow, and loss. These emotions are equally essential to making the Declaration ours.

And readers, individually and collectively, should feel conflicted about the document and its creation. America’s founders were a fascinating, brilliant, and compelling set of individuals; their co-creation of a new system of government remains inspiring and moving. Yet these same men whose words continue to inspire also wrote of “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”[9] This is the complicated legacy we inherit — one in which revolutionary acts of freedom and practices of white supremacy are mutually constitutive.

Yet in taking ownership of this imperfect achievement, Our Declaration serves as an invitation to refuse the easy solace of denunciation or celebration. Neither represents the democratic reading practices the Declaration demands, for as Allen makes abundantly clear, there is nothing simple about this short and powerful work.

The author’s discussion of group writing suggests one powerful opportunity for sitting with the Declaration’s contradictions and tragedy. Noting that Jefferson’s original draft was edited not only by a five-member committee but by Congress, Allen describes the process by which the founders deleted all references to slavery while adding numerous references to God. Despite the result — which, arguably, contributed to generations of violence and human devastation —Allen nevertheless characterizes this process as the “art of democratic writing,” a practice that while maddening is “necessary for justice.”[10]

I admit that such celebratory language leaves me perplexed. While group writing may be a democratic art — a messy but important practice that abets compromise — such compromises carry a price. What is democratic, after all, may not be just. And it’s here that, as a reader, I wanted Allen to resist a rush to romance and instead linger over the political implications of group writing.

How shall we reckon with such violent silence? And how do such omissions allow readers of the Declaration to feel pride in the birth of our nation’s freedom while evading any sustained confrontation with slavery and its concomitant sins of rape, torture, and the creation of wealth from stolen labor? In fact, Allen’s demand that we read slowly (and together) seems to invite the possibility of such a reckoning. As she herself notes when discussing how segregationists changed the language of “separate and equal” to “separate but equal,” the Declaration “provided tools for liberating some and dominating others.” But such moments of acknowledgment are worthy of elaboration. For if Allen is right, then we owe it to each other to slow down and truly grapple with “the stuff of tragedy.”[11]

Of course, encouraging readers to linger over both the Declaration’s beauty and tragedy isn’t easy — claiming this inspired and tortured legacy with its echoing inequities should break our hearts. But perhaps in our current political moment, the only morally justifiable patriotism is of the brokenhearted variety.

[1] Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (New York: Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), p. 275.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, edited by J.P. Mayer, Translated by George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1969 [1840], p. 703.

[3] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 506.

[4] Our Declaration, p. 108.

[5] Our Declaration, p. 269.

[6] Our Declaration, p. 269.

[7] Our Declaration, p. 38.

[8] Our Declaration, p. 42.

[9] Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 reprinted in Our Declaration, p. 30.

[10] Our Declaration, p. 101.

[11] Our Declaration, p. 125.

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