“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 abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”


Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?


I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.


I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!


I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.


Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.


O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”


The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.


O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.


Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,


O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!


For about a decade, Danielle Allen paid her dues as a young history scholar putting undergraduates through their paces at the University of Chicago. Many of them were among the nation’s most elite students – brilliant, high-achieving young people, as she puts it – “rolling in from their dorm room beds with tousled hair right into class.”

But she also served another, very different population – adult students, many of them, she said, “without jobs, or working two jobs or stuck in dead-end part-time jobs,” juggling children’s schedules, daycare and the city bus service. These folks should have arrived for classes bone-tired, but instead, she said, they “pulsed with energy.”

The two groups met in the same classroom – though at different times – and read the same books, ranging from the Greek Antigone to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. In each circle, she said, “we were making worlds: naming life’s constitutive events, clarifying our principles, and testing against one another’s wits our accounts of what was happening around us.”

But, for her, Allen said, the most transformative experience she had in that class was with what she called her “life-tested night students” studying not some classic work of history or literature, but the Declaration of Independence.

Not a one of them had ever read it or had any notion that it had anything to do with them. Instead, as she put it, “It represented institutions and power, everything that solidified a world that had, as life turned out, delivered them so much grief, so much to overcome.”

The experience, she said, changed her own perspective on this celebrated document. Most people read the Declaration as a cry for freedom, for liberation – it is, after all, a call for independence. But Allen says that if you read it closely you discover something more. Underpinning that call is a new claim about the source of legitimate government centered in the notion of what Allen calls “political equality.”

What makes the Declaration important, she concluded, is not simply its historic role in the birth of this country but its enduring and deeply relevant vision of how and why democracy works. And it’s a vision that she fears we are losing.

I wonder if she’s right. Cased in glass like an artifact of ancient times, quoted in sound bite snippets taken out of context, the Declaration is honored more than it is read. That was certainly true of me until I stumbled on Allen’s recent book, Our Declaration, which got me thinking about this.

Danielle Allen speaks from a unique perspective, an African-American scholar of mixed parentage: on one side, Midwestern, progressive whites, on the other Caribbean blacks who included in their number one-time slaves and Baptist preachers. As it happens, she says, the Declaration was something that figured strongly in her family, even as the subject of debates at the dinner table. It made no difference that it was drawn up by white men of property who never intended that it extend to people like them, her family regarded the Declaration as part of their patrimony.

Allen’s night class renewed her interest in the Declaration less as a historical document than as a goad to people to engage in public life. “I wanted to bring it to life for them,” she said, “as citizens, as thinkers, as political deliberators and decision makers. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”

So, in this contentious time when so many of us feel that democracy is disappointing them, just ahead of our annual celebration of Independence Day, I thought it would be worth our accepting Allen’s invitation to reflect more deeply on this great argument for democratic power that is part of our patrimony, too.

Allen wants us to focus on the notion of equality that we find in the Declaration.  Asked where to locate equality in the Declaration of Independence, we’re inclined to go right to the start of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Boom! There you go.

  1. Except, Allen points out, the sentence doesn’t end there, so the thought isn’t quite complete. It goes on: “that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So, the framers aren’t saying we’re all the same – clearly we’re not – but we are equal in being born with certain rights. Everybody gets them. It just comes with the package.

OK, I get it: we’re equal in all having certain rights and . . . Wait! The sentence isn’t finished yet. It goes on: “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 abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

What? Are you kidding? No, really that’s it. That full passage from the Declaration that you heard Jennifer read earlier is actually one sentence. The Declaration is not exactly beach reading. That last phrase is important, though, because it addresses a lingering concern.

Yes, we are each born wanting, needing to live, to be free and to do that which fulfills us. But we are given no guarantee that we will get all or any of that. Lots of people don’t. So, how do we convert these wishes and needs into rights? The short answer is by something else that the framers argued is also part of the make-up of every person, as natural as breathing, something Allen sums up as “politics,” or, as the Declaration says, the institution of governments.

People secure what they consider their rights, making it possible for them to live as they want to live, by means of organizing themselves. As fed up as we get sometimes at how government performs, it is essential to securing our rights. And not just any form of government will do. To be legitimate, it must be, the founders declared, “derived from the consent of the governed.”

This is all wrapped up with the earlier part, another “self-evident truth.” So, you see that great long sentence is not just laying out a few observations before it gets to the important stuff, i.e. “listen, king. We’re done with you.” It is summarizing a philosophy of government, one that they claim is grounded in nature, in the world as it is.

This is what gives them the confidence to say that if people are being ruled in a way that fails to respect those rights – as they claimed King George had – then they have the natural right to alter or overthrow that government and set up another that provides for their safety and happiness. It’s worth noting that the Declaration celebrates independence not as an end in itself but as a means to creating another form of governance that better serves the people.

Danielle Allen points out that for all the struggles the founders were enduring at the time the argument at the center of the Declaration is a remarkably sunny one: that every one of us is a competent judge of our needs and what brings us happiness, and that through conversation and negotiation that respects our mutual needs and wants we are capable of building a government that serves us all.

Pie in the sky? Maybe: 241 years later the goal is still far off, and, some would say, moving further. And certainly, not all agree with this perspective. Monarchists, despots, racists, misogynists – anyone who holds themselves as better than others, who claims the right to decide others’ destiny. Sadly, the world and our own politics is populated with a distressing number of such folks, who even while demeaning government seek to secure its power and blessings for themselves.

There are many like the adults who showed up for Allen’s night classes who see little in the Declaration that has anything to say to them, people for whom flowery talk of “equality” is just so much palaver. For these people, Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let American be America again, written in 1936, is as relevant now as it was then.

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breath.

 And then in parentheses:

(There’s never been equality for me.

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Who is speaking here? Hughes offers us litany:

The poor white, fooled and pushed apart

The Negros bearing slavery’s scars,

 The red man driven from the land,

The immigrant clutching hope.

 And many more as well.

I am the people, he says, humble, hungry, mean.

 But a Declaration of Independence? Really?

The free? Who said the free?

Not me, Surely not me. . . .

O, let America be America again

The land that never has been yet

And yet must be – the land where every man is free.

 This brings us to a key point for Danielle Allen, probably the most controversial argument in her book. We read the Declaration as making a case for freedom, and there’s no question that it does. But Allen argues that when you look closely, you find that, in her words, “equality has precedence over freedom; only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.”

So, let’s stop a moment and reflect on that. We’ve already acknowledged that freedom to live as we want is important, one of the founders’ “inalienable rights.” Yet, the Declaration also suggests that in order to be converted from a want into a right it needs to be secured by a government in which all have equal ownership.

As Danielle Allen puts it, “Equality is the foundation of freedom because from a commitment to equality emerges the people itself – we, the people – with the power both to create a shared world in which all can flourish and to defend it from encroachers.”

And so from this we learn, or have to be reminded, that democratic power does not live in institutions; it belongs to the people. Always does, always has. But oddly we are so often ready to cede that power to others, people stronger, richer, craftier, more bellicose. And suddenly “democratic” power simply becomes another form of oppression. The question before us, then, is how we reclaim that power for ourselves and each other.

I’m persuaded by Danielle Allen that we would serve ourselves better if we would deemphasize freedom for a bit and look for ways to raise up equality, a principal at the heart of our faith, one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Commitment to equality, seeing each person as of equal value, equal worth, is a fundamental building stone to creating the Beloved Community. It is the beating heart that welcomes all, that comforts all, that holds us in mutual embrace. It is the fragile hope that called to our forebears, that calls to now, the means by which we diverse and sometimes disputatious people might some day be one.

May we be agents to help make it so.