This year’s Pre-read for the incoming freshmen was Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by political theorist Danielle Allen ’93. PAW spoke with Allen following her talk at the freshman assembly Sept. 11.
You asked the freshmen to think about why the declaration describes the “pursuit” of happiness, as opposed to the achievement or acquisition of it. Why do you think the authors chose that word?
Life is a struggle, and in order to do as well as possible in that struggle, you have to develop the capacity to diagnose your circumstances, prescribe a course of action, understand the justifications for it, and share those justifications with others. To do those things is to pursue happiness — there’s no guarantee of an achievement and there’s contingency in life — you don’t know what sort of opposition you’ll encounter.
What do you think about historical legacies? How should we view someone like Thomas Jefferson, an author of the declaration who owned slaves?
We should criticize him for his failure to work his principles all the way through the fabric of his life ... at the same time as we celebrate him for his achievements. But I think we get hung up on Jefferson; I regret that we don’t spend more time thinking about people like John Adams and the kind of moral example that he set. He’s just as important to the declaration, and he never owned slaves.
How does the declaration relate to the current presidential campaign?
The declaration can help every voting citizen set a standard against which to judge the candidates. It sets a high standard for what politicians should be able to do — [they] should have clarity of thought, they should show commitment to the well-being of the people, and they should be prepared to test their reasons and their principles against the arguments of others.
Interview conducted and condensed by A.W.