What the Declaration of Independence means to Americans today

'Our Declaration' by Danielle Allen
'Our Declaration' by Danielle Allen
Book cover courtesy of publisher

The Declaration of Independence is a document familiar to most Americans. But relatively few have read have read it from end to end.

In her new book, scholar Danielle Allen invites the reader to take a deeper look at "Our Declaration," paying particular attention to the role of equality.

"At the end of the day, it's a pretty small, compact argument about basic human capacities," she said on The Daily Circuit. "The basic human capacity that the Declaration cares most about is the ability of every single one of us to survey our circumstances and figure out whether things are going well or ill for us. Then, if they aren't going well, figure out how to correct course... As we do that work, it's so important that we work together because it's our shared political institutions that build the framework through which we can pursue our flourishing."

Allen wrote about the America's founding document after teaching it to adult learners from disadvantaged and low income backgrounds. She saw how many of them didn't think it belonged to them and watched that view change.

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"The Declaration is fundamentally about surveying ones circumstances," she said. "It starts out, 'When in the course of human events.' You have to figure out what's going on with you... For these students, who are all in various ways in difficult circumstances, the Declaration spoke to them personally as well as at a sort of political or social level."

Carlos, a caller from Eagan, told a story of how hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud changed his life:

A fun Declaration fact:

Allen discussed how a single errant period was added to the Declaration of Independence and why it changed the meaning of a very long sentence:

What phrases or principles of the Declaration inspire or puzzle you and why? Tell us in the comments.