Civic Education and the Declaration of Independence

July 1, 2016

By Danielle Allen

This spring a small but significant political battle played out in the Louisiana Statehouse.  Lawmakers shelved a Louisiana house bill requiring that fourth through sixth graders in public schools begin their day by reciting two-thirds of the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence. The debate reveals both how poorly equipped we are as a nation to understand even our founding document and what a hard time we’re having reinventing civic education for a new millennium.

Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges wanted to have students recite the most familiar part of the sentence: “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.”

Here’s the part she left out: “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to 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.”

The complete second sentence of the Declaration of Independence is a syllogism, two premises that generate a logically necessary conclusion:

Premise 1: People have rights.

Premise 2: The purpose of government is to secure those rights.

Conclusion: When government fails to perform that function, the people have the right to change their government as they see fit.

In other words, the whole second sentence expresses, in compressed form, the theory of revolution that the colonists used to justify their decision to break from England.

Did Louisiana House members object to the fact that the House Bill, in offering a truncated version of the second sentence for the daily pledge, had made a basic mistake with regard to syntax and argument? No. Very few Americans realize how long the second sentence is.

This is partly because the National Archives online transcription of the Declaration has a period at the end of the first third of the sentence, after “pursuit of happiness,” just as does the William J. Stone engraving of the Declaration from 1823, the image of the Declaration that most Americans have in mind. But, as my research team has shown, the Stone engraving is not a perfect copy of the signed parchment. Once one sees this, it is also clear that the National Archives transcription is actually a transcription of that 1823 engraving, not the 1776 original.

That’s right: This country has no scholarly transcription of the original 1776 parchment of the Declaration of Independence.

No wonder folks aren’t exactly clear about the text.

But this confusion wasn’t the source of resistance to the bill. Nor did the controversy hinge on the pedagogical debate about whether recitation and memorization actually lead to understanding.

Instead, objections, mostly from Democrats, included the argument that women and African Americans weren’t considered equal in 1776, making the text inappropriate for recitation, and the contention that other texts, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Rights stressing women’s rights, or Martin Luther King’s  “I Have a Dream Speech” would be superior choices. This is the sort of partisan wrangling that often dooms efforts to renew civic education.

In fact, it’s inaccurate to say that the phrase “all men are created equal” didn’t refer to African Americans and women. Internal evidence in the document shows that the word “men” was used in an inclusive fashion, as when in the rough draft Jefferson described “MEN” caps in being sold on the auction block. The word clearly included women and children sold there too. What’s more, Jefferson described the distant Africans as having “sacred rights of life and liberty,” roughly the same words he used for colonists.  

Then there are letters from John Adams, also one of the drafters, who never held slaves, and who thought slavery was wrong. These indicate that he and colleagues did think that women and laborers, which in Adams’ Massachusetts included people of color, were included among those who had “Lives and personal Liberty”. They also thought, however, that the job of preserving those rights should be entrusted to the hands of men, mainly white ones, with property.

Nonetheless, already by January of 1777 abolitionists, including the African American Bostonian Prince Hall, were taking up the second sentence to argue for an end to slavery. Prince Hall certainly thought the sentence meant that everyone was equal. By 1780, abolition had been achieved in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

White Southerners did not, of course, accept the expansive meaning of the Declaration’s claim about human equality. By the time they reached the point of secession, they outright repudiated it. They wrote their own fresh Declaration and contrasted it to the original:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas: its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural and moral condition.”

In so founding the Confederate States of Americas, white Southerners conceded that an expansive definition of equality had indeed been at the heart of the American founding, a point that Lincoln would emphasize.

Representative Hodges’ fundamental intuition is right, even if the problematic punctuation led her astray. The complete second sentence of the Declaration can teach us a lot about our own history, about freedom and enslavement, about the foundations of democratic republics, and even about their crack-ups in civil wars. So can we renew civic education with methods that are compelling across party lines? Only if we are rigorous about both language and history.

Danielle Allen
 is the Principal Investigator of the Declaration Resources Project. She is the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Professor in the Department of Government and Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.