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Inaugural Lincoln Scholar Lecture Finds Lessons in Declaration of Independence

Danielle Allen speaking at event

According to Harvard Professor Danielle Allen, though the Declaration of Independence falls short on issues of slavery and gender, its essence has provided a lasting blueprint for the experiment of American democracy.

Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and the author of the book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, said the historic document outlines a system of government that depends on people taking their responsibilities as citizens seriously while delivering the inaugural Lincoln Scholars lecture hosted by the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA). Rather than being an outdated relic, she said the nearly 250-year-old declaration maintains its relevance today and can help empower Americans – especially valuable in times of political discourse.

“Democracy means the power of the people,” said Allen. “The very concept of democracy requires abstraction and thought on the part of citizens. In moments of crisis, it’s important to underscore the value of thinking.”

Allen described plummeting public approval ratings of Congress as a slow creeping crisis. Just as the authors of the Declaration of Independence compromised, lawmakers either need to work together or the people should rethink they organize the powers of government, she said.

“In every political contest, somebody loses. If a democracy is going to work, it must be worth it for the people who lose at any given moment to continue to participate Allen said. “The biggest threat to democracy is the kind of division that leads people to opt out. Democracy cannot survive that process of fragmentation. It can survive only if people commit to political institutions as valuable in themselves.”  

Allen emphasized that the elegantly constructed wording in the declaration reflects compromise – both good and bad. But the document is meant to represent the reality of democratic life -- which involves process, conversation, listening, and compromise.

 “[The authors of the declaration] set a high standard for the kind of thought we should be bringing to our democratic life,” said Allen.

Associate Professor Thomas Merrill, director of the Lincoln Scholars program, said he hopes the lecture gave students a sense of how to read historical texts and take moral ideas seriously. “Allen showed us how wrestling with a common text allows us to talk about our shared ideals across difference and disagreement,” said Merrill, noting that Allen is quite present in the public sphere including a recent article in The Atlantic about how Americans can become citizens again.

Joshua Sucec, SPA/ BA ’23, said the lecture took a deep dive into the Declaration of Independence and led to a productive discussion. “It brought up a lot of questions about fundamental aspects of our society, such as the importance of compromise,” said Sucec, a political science and economics major who is an enrolled in the Lincoln Scholars program. “[Allen] was able to contextualize things in a very articulate manner about how we can deal with a document that has such a complex convoluted history and take the best out of it.”