Danielle Allen: John Adams’ and Our Declaration

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, about her research and teaching on the Declaration of Independence, including John Adams’ role in creating it, supported by evidence found right here at Houghton.

Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at http://houghton75.org/hist-75h

Fife & Drum Ensembles from the Internet Archive

Podcast Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

[end music]

JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit houghton75.org for more information.

[background music: Medley. Recording from Internet Archive.]

JC: The Declaration of Independence is arguably the most important document in American history. So, it’s natural to assume that we know everything about it, or at least the big things. For example, we obviously know who wrote it, right?

HF: If you’re thinking of Thomas Jefferson, you’re not alone. That’s the history we’ve all been taught! But did you know that the Declaration was actually written by committee? One of those committee members was John Adams, then a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress and eventually the second President of the United States.

JC: We talked with Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, about her research and teaching on Adams’ contribution to this famous document. As it happens, the supporting evidence for her theory is right here at Houghton – a Massachusetts state proclamation written by John Adams in January of 1776.

[end music]

Danielle Allen (DA): I’ve worked on the Declaration for some time now, and one of the most important stories to me that’s emerged from that work is the story of John Adams’ role in driving the politics that led to the Declaration and in generating the arguments for [the] Declaration. And in fact I’ve been going around the country making the argument that the only reason we think Thomas Jefferson is the author of the Declaration of Independence is because he put that on his tombstone (laughs). And if he hadn’t put on his tombstone “Author – Declaration of Independence” we might know the truth, which is that multiple people participated in producing even the text of the Declaration and John Adams was one of the most important people who did that.

So I cannot tell you how excited I was when I came over to the Houghton about a year ago, and discovered Adams’ Proclamation by the General Court from January 19, 1776. This was a proclamation that the Massachusetts General Court was putting out, but Adams wrote it and it is a draft of the Declaration of Independence. So at last I had my final piece of proof. I had many other pieces of proof that were about the politics of the Declaration and Adams’ role. Of course he was also on the committee that drafted the Declaration and we know some of the specific contributions that he made, but here is a text that has in its basic structure exactly the same structure as the Declaration of Independence six months before the Declaration. Not only does it have exactly the same structure, but it has the same language (laughs). It is the first version of the Declaration of Independence.

HF: Proposing alternatives to popular history is no small task, and Professor Allen quickly pointed us to her supporting evidence. Many key phrases from the Declaration of Independence were also present in John Adams’ proclamation, and the similarities are undeniable.

JC: Here are just a few key sections:

DA: Take a look at the first paragraph and you’ll see this lovely sentence:
The frailty of human Nature, the Wants of Individuals, and the numerous Dangers
which surround them, through the Course of Life, have in all Ages, and in every
Country impelled them to form Societies, and establish Governments.

Now listen to the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve
the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among
the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature
and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind
requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“Course of life” in Adams’ text, “course of human events” in the Declaration. “Impelling” people to form societies in the Adams text, “impelling” them to separate from Britain in the Declaration. The basic structure of the argument is the same in the two places. There is greater elaboration in the Declaration, but the Adams text counts as a first draft there.

When I was researching the Declaration, I was struck by the “course of human events” phrase and I really wanted to know its source. So I searched all of Jefferson’s texts and he does not use a phrase like that very often. Adams uses that kind of phrase a lot. And what’s particularly nice about that is there’s a real cluster of uses of that idea of the course of life or course of human events in the letters between Abigail Adams and John Adams. And Abigail actually took that image of the course of human life from reading Shakespeare. So it’s not only that we then can see Adams, John Adams in the Declaration of Independence, we can even see Abigail Adams’ voice in that phrase “course of human events.”

[musical interlude: Medley. Recording from Internet Archive.]

DA: Then take a look at the next paragraph of the Adams Proclamation.
As the Happiness of the People is the sole End of Government, So the Consent of the People is the only Foundation of it…
That is a synopsis of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. That’s that famous paragraph that makes the argument that all human beings are endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It makes the case that governments are instituted among men to secure those rights, including pursuit of happiness, and it makes the case that everything rests on the people. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and it’s the job of governments to effect the safety and happiness of the people. It is Adams’ argument. He also made this argument at length, both in a letter to Richard Henry Lee in November of 1775 and a pamphlet from April 1776 called ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Government.’ So my argument has been that it’s John Adams who made happiness the centerpiece of the Declaration of Independence and the centerpiece of the arguments about what they were all doing, and this Proclamation is that missing piece of evidence between the fall of 1775, April and May of 1776, and then the Declaration. It’s the most extraordinary thing to be able to put these two texts next to each other.

[background music: Cork Hornpipe, by Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks. Recording from Internet Archive.]

JC: Okay, so we have some clear similarities in the language of the two documents. But do they also have a shared purpose? If independence wasn’t declared until July, what exactly was Adams calling for in his proclamation from six months earlier? And where does Richard Henry Lee fit into all of this?

[end music]

DA: John Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia were radicals. They came together in November of 1775 and concocted a strategy. They basically wanted to make the case that they were as good as not having governments already. The king had declared the Colonies out of his protection. From that point of view, the king had already dissolved the Royal Administration in the Colonies. So they thought they had two things they needed to do: They needed to convince their colleagues of this absence of government and convince everybody to build new governments, and then they thought once they had convinced people of that they would be able to convince people to go ahead and declare independence. Declaring independence then is more like putting the exclamation point on something that you’re already doing.
And so this proclamation is a perfect example of that strategy, and Massachusetts was just one state that was in this process of trying to set up its own processes of government. New Hampshire was actually the first state where these issues were provoked. They wrote a constitution in January of 1776, and actually then in May, Adams secured passage in Continental Congress of a resolution recommending that all of the Colonies go ahead and set up governments And that was a sort of full realization of Adams’ and Lee’s strategy. And so by the time we get to July 4th, we already have five Colonies that have been writing constitutions for themselves. So as it happens, writing constitutions, setting up new governments preceded the decision to declare independence. John Adams, in collaboration with Richard Henry Lee, was at the forefront of that movement to get people to take responsibility for building new governments. And again, that’s exactly what this Massachusetts Proclamation is doing.
HF: John Adams wanted the people to take responsibility for their government. But which people was he talking about, exactly? Was he only referring to property-owning white men? After all, those were the individuals who would ultimately be voting in the new government.

DA: You know, you see it in the Declaration of Independence when they talk about declaring facts to a candid world or explaining to people the causes that impelled them, that they genuinely understood themselves to have a broad and popular audience. The text wasn’t just produced for an elite. It was going to be read in the town square. Anybody was going to hear. There might be slaves there, even in Boston at the time there could be slaves standing in that town square listening to this. So they really were oriented to a conversation that was public for all ranks and orders. And that’s another interesting feature of this Adams Proclamation, too. Its actual purpose is not about declaring independence even though it has the same structure and the same arguments. Its actual purpose is to cultivate the virtues in the citizenry that are necessary for self-government. So it’s about preparing people to take responsibility for their political institutions, and ensuring that they’ll avoid all “Crimes and Misdemeanors, all Debauchery, all Prophaneness, all Corruption, Venality, all riotous and tumultuous Proceedings,” and so forth. They knew they were doing something radical by setting up new institutions, they knew they were doing something radical by communicating broadly with all the members of the population, and they were concerned to ensure stability and tranquility and social peace. And so the publicity around all of these proclamations was about trying to cultivate a shared collective commitment to both the project of independence, the project of self-government on the one hand, but then also a sort of project of character formation necessary to support that.

JC: One theme in Professor Allen’s writing on the Declaration of Independence is the relationship between liberty and equality. Not surprisingly, this also came up in our conversation and we asked Professor Allen to elaborate on the concepts. What do they mean within the context of the Declaration?

DA: Well, take a look at the third paragraph of the Adams Proclamation. “…the great Creator having never [gave] to Men a right to vest others with Authority over them…” which is a very funny way of putting the point about human equality, but that’s the basic point about human equality. And again you see the connection to the Declaration, the link between the idea of the creator and human equality. So here Adams is giving us a definition of what that idea of equality in the Declaration means. It means that none of us has the right to vest others with authority over us. Since we don’t have a right to vest others with authority over us, it’s our responsibility to maintain authority over ourselves and to act on that through self-government on the one hand and through the right ordering of our own lives on the other hand.

The equality concept is tightly connected to the self-government concept, and that’s how equality and liberty come together. That was a conventional formulation as of the late 18th Century. It’s what tends to get called “republicanism,” with a small “r” so it doesn’t denote a party or anything like that. The idea goes back to the Roman republic and the notion that if you want to be free, the only way to secure freedom is to have a role in the public decisions that shape our common world. Then the second part of the idea is that that’s a sort of freedom from domination. The only way that everybody can have that freedom is if everybody has it equally. So we all need to be equal in sharing our political freedom with one another.

[background music: Medley. Recording from Internet Archive.]

DA: There are many similarities between what I’m trying to do and what John Adams was trying to do. John Adams is trying to explain in this text to people what the basic concepts of self-government are, namely, government rests on the people. Nobody can hand over their authority over their own life. That is, we all have these basic rights of liberty and self-government. There should be a bedrock there for political equality in a society. So then the question is, if those are our ideals, what we’re aiming toward, how do we actually achieve them or affect them. And so this long middle section of the document spends a lot of time talking very specifically about the different kinds of offices in government. And Adams, he was a lawyer after all! He was very lawyerly in his thinking. He’s really the first constitutional theorist working on behalf of the new country. And so he’s trying to show people the way you translate the aspiration to liberty into a reality is through a very precise understanding of how institutions secure people’s rights, and an understanding of how the different branches of government have different jobs and their separability matters to the protection of rights. And then he I think finally, in this document at any rate, is really trying to make the case that until people understand what their own role is as a citizen, none of the rest of this will get off the ground.
That’s where our projects come together. So I am also trying to restore for people a sense of the connection between a passionate desire for liberty, a need for that to be equally shared liberty within a people, and the importance of institutions to securing that, within the notion that all of that rests on the people’s knowledge about the value of political institutions and how they should operate. If you lose that broad, public understanding, then the institutions are in jeopardy., and if the institutions are in jeopardy, then freedom and equality are in jeopardy.

[background music: General Washington’s March, by Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks. Recording from Internet Archive.]

HF: We’d like to thank Professor Danielle Allen for joining us and sharing her understanding of freedom, equality, and the Declaration of Independence. As she reminded us, citizens have an important role in protecting their own liberty by understanding political documents and the institutions that emerge from them.

JC: The songs you’ve heard throughout the podcast were public domain recordings of fife and drum ensembles. They are part of the collection Music of the Revolutionary War, available through the Internet Archive. Thanks to them for keeping these public domain recordings alive and accessible.

HF: As part of our online exhibition HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library, the John Adams Proclamation so important to Professor Allen’s work can be viewed at houghton75.org, along with several other faculty-selected objects.

JC: The proclamation has also been fully digitized and can be freely viewed online, or it can be viewed here in the library, in our Reading Room.

HF: Thanks for listening in, and from all of us here at Houghton Library, we hope you will join us next week for another episode of Houghton75.