ALEXANDRIA, VA — American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a recent nationwide test. Most fourth graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors are able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian, was invited by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which conducted the test, to review the results. She said she was particularly concerned by the fact that only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education. Students were given an excerpt that included the following passage and asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct: “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place; separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Ms. Ravitch declared: “The answer was right in front of them. This is alarming.” U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “The results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education.”
“The nineteenth century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth-century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom.” —Milton Friedman
Yet, if we are not teaching history in our schools, there is widespread interest in our history in the larger society. Biographies of figures such as Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson have all been bestsellers in recent years. Television series about major historical events, such as the Civil War, have attracted large audiences.
Now, much attention is being given to a new study of the Declaration of Independence. Our Declaration, by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Danielle's father, Bill Allen, is also an academic and scholar. He was one of the early black conservatives and has long opposed race-based programs that judge men and women on the basis of their race and ethnic background rather than their individual merit.
While many Americans think of Thomas Jefferson as the sole author of the Declaration, Danielle Allen points out, “The monumental achievement of Thomas Jefferson is, ultimately, to have produced a first draft.” She notes that Jefferson shared his draft with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who offered suggestions. It then went through the Committee of Five and on to Congress, which from July 2 to July 4 edited the Declaration extensively, “much to Jefferson’s chagrin.” Congress cut about one-fourth of Jefferson’s words, added some references to divinity, and took out a section attacking slavery.
In Allen’s view, “With changes such as these, with God edited in and a condemnation of slavery eluded, Congress achieved a text that the men of that day and age could live with, including Jefferson grumpily.” She views this process in positive terms. Jefferson, she writes, produced a work of such “philosophical integrity and unquestionable brilliance” that it could survive the “intense committee work.” And, she argues, the committee work reflected the Founders' belief in equality.
This process of “democratic writing,” coming after many months of discussion and argument not only in Philadelphia but throughout the colonies, is, Allen believes, worthy of celebration: “There is no other way for a free and equal people to chart its course. Our only chance to achieve collective happiness comes through extensive conversation punctuated here and there with votes, which will themselves over time, in their imperfection, simply demand of us more talk.”
The Declaration declares the right of a people to create a government “most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” This, in turn, writes Allen, rested on a radical notion: “As judges of our own happiness, we are equals,” and, as a result, “the unrelenting work for which each of us, in face of this equality, must take responsibility.”
The book, Our Declaration, is a line-by-line, often word-by-word, commentary on our founding document. It was stimulated by Danielle Allen’s experiences in teaching the Declaration to night school students in Chicago. She writes about growing up in a mixed-race African-American family whose dinner conversations often turned to the Declaration and its pronouncement that “all men” are created equal.
The book has stirred some controversy. Reviewing Our Declaration in The New York Times Book Review, Professor Steven B. Smith of Yale writes: “This book makes three large claims about the Declaration of Independence, one that is profoundly true, another that is debatable, and a third, I would say, that is false. Its principal truth is that when Jefferson wrote ‘all men are created equal,’ this genuinely meant to apply to all, black as well as white. There is moral cosmopolitanism in the Declaration's language.”
Second, Smith notes, is the considerable attention Allen devotes to the famous “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” clause. He asks, “How much does the Declaration depend on a theistic orientation? Jefferson and his colleagues speak of rights as being endowed by our Creator. An endowment suggests that these rights are not self-created but a gift. Yet as Allen correctly notes, the God invoked by the Declaration is certainly not the God of the Bible.... Allen seems to argue... that the language of divinity is entirely marginal to the text... she says the Declaration's language of ‘self-evident’ truths is drawn not from Scripture but from logic.... She confidently affirms that one does not need to be a theist to accept the arguments of the Declaration. It is not at all clear that this confidence was shared by the authors of the text.”
What Smith finds to be Allen’s “least plausible” assertion is her claim about the “group writing” that went into the composition of the Declaration. She expresses the view that group writing shows how something called the “collective mind” contributes to the production of our shared moral vocabulary. Smith disagrees. He notes that Jefferson’s original draft contained a strong denunciation of the slave trade as a “war against human nature,” and writes, “The passage was deleted by the Continental Congress as too inflammatory.... Jefferson’s relationship to slavery was, as Allen observes, ‘maddeningly complex,’ but had his words not been compromised by the group, they would have rendered impossible later misrepresentations of the Declaration as expressing the economic self-interest of the slave owners.”
Another area of debate has been Allen’s belief that “equality” is central in the Declaration. Traditionally, American society has seen the claims of liberty and equality as pulling in opposite directions. And in the battle between liberty and equality, the claims of individual liberty have held the dominant position. There is, of course, some historical evidence to back up Allen’s claim. In Democracy In America, written in 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville wrote, “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”
More often, however, we have understood “equality” to mean equal opportunity to go as far as our individual talents and hard work will take us, as well as equality before the law, and in the eyes of God, not equality of condition. In Capitalism and Freedom, economist Milton Friedman states, “The nineteenth century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth-century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom.”
Whether one agrees with all of Danielle Allen’s conclusions, the fact is that she has produced an important book. Her passion for each of the Declaration’s 1,337 words is extraordinary. And to see Americans focusing on their history, exploring what Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their colleagues really meant, is hardly a minor achievement in our era of popular culture and political correctness.
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2014
by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which
is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has
been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and
the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.
He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing
editor to such publications as Human Events,
The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle
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