An American Sickness New York Times Review


Why an Open Market Won’t Repair American Health Care

CreditPing Zhu


How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back 
By Elisabeth Rosenthal 
406 pp. Penguin Press. $28.

A few years back, the future of American health policy appeared to hinge on how similar medical care was to broccoli. It was March 2012, and the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) was before the Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia zeroed in on its controversial requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance. Yes, everybody needs health care, Scalia conceded, but everybody needs food too. If the government could make people buy insurance, why couldn’t it “make people buy broccoli”?

The Affordable Care Act survived, of course — though not before a fractured court made the expansion of Medicaid optional, leaving millions of poorer Americans without its promised benefits. But the question Justice Scalia asked remains at the heart of a debate that has only intensified since: Why is health care different? Why does it create so much more anxiety and expense, heartache and hardship, than does buying broccoli — or cars or computers or the countless other things Americans routinely purchase each day?

For those leading the charge to roll back the 2010 law, the question has a one-word answer: government. President Trump’s point man on health policy, the former congressman (and ultrawealthy orthopedic surgeon) Tom Price, has said that “nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government’s intrusion into medicine through Medicare.” Senator Rand Paul (another surgeon) and House Speaker Paul Ryan have claimed that the affordability of Lasik eye surgery — generally not covered by health insurance — shows that a much freer health care market would be much less expensive. Their idea of “reform” is to cut back public and private insurance so consumers have “more skin in the game” and thus shop more wisely.

Elisabeth Rosenthal
Credit Nina Subin

The physician-turned-journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal offers a very different answer in her eye-opening “An American Sickness.” Rosenthal — formerly a reporter for The New York Times, now the editor in chief of the nonprofit Kaiser Health News — is best known for a prizewinning series of articles, “Paying Till It Hurts.” In them, Rosenthal chronicled the seemingly endless pathologies of America’s medical-industrial complex, from prescription drugs that grew more costly as they became more dated to hip-replacement surgery so expensive it was cheaper for a patient to fly to a hospital in Belgium.

Rosenthal thinks the health care market is different, and she sums up these differences as the “economic rules of the dysfunctional medical market.” There are 10 — some obvious (No. 9: “There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything”); some humorous (No. 2: “A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure”) — but No. 10 is the big one: “Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.” To Rosenthal, that’s the answer to Scalia’s question. The health care market doesn’t work like other markets because “what the market will bear” is vastly greater than what a well-functioning market should bear. As Rosenthal describes American health care, it’s not really a market; it’s more like a protection racket — tolerated only because so many different institutions are chipping in to cover the extortionary bill and because, ultimately, it’s our lives that are on the line.

Consider the epicenter of America’s cost crisis: the once humble hospital. Thanks in part to hit TV shows, we think of hospitals as public-spirited pillars of local communities. Yet while most are legally classified as nonprofits, they are also very big businesses, maximizing surpluses that can be plowed into rising salaries and relentless expansion even when they are not earning profits or remunerating shareholders. And they have grown much bigger and more businesslike over time.

Rosenthal tells the story of Providence Portland Medical Center, a Northwest hospital system founded by nuns. Four decades ago, its operational hub in Portland, Ore., consisted of two modest hospitals: Providence and St. Vincent. As it happens, my mother was a nurse at St. Vincent for more than half those years, and thus had a front-row seat as Providence transformed from a Catholic charity into one of the nation’s largest nonprofit hospital systems, with annual revenues of $14 billion in 2015.

Along the way, Providence jettisoned most of its original mission, replacing nuns with number crunchers. Once run mainly by doctors, it filled its growing bureaucracy with professional coders capable of gaming insurance-reimbursement rules to extract maximum revenue. Meanwhile, Providence stopped paying doctors as staff and reclassified them as independent contractors (though not so independent they could skip a “charm school” designed by its marketers). Yet even as its C.E.O. earned more than $4 million, Providence touted itself as a “not-for-profit Catholic health care ministry” upholding the “tradition of caring” started by the nuns (now listed as “sponsors” in promotional materials). Rosenthal sums up the result as “a weird mix of Mother Teresa and Goldman Sachs.”

Actually, not much of Mother Teresa: Providence-like consolidation in every part of American health care has created a structure at least as concentrated as the European systems conservatives decry, yet without the economy or coordination of care such concentration might offer if it were focused on people rather than profits. The Yale economist Zack Cooper has shown that prices paid by private insurers are not just massively higher than those paid by Medicare. (They’re in a different orbit from those paid abroad.) They are also hugely variable from place to place and even institution to institution, without any evidence that higher prices produce better care. Providers charge high prices not when and where they need to; but when and where — courtesy of consolidation — they can.

Rosenthal’s book doesn’t conclude with conglomerates. She also provides an eye-opening discussion of skyrocketing drug prices, as well as the less-familiar pathologies of excessive medical testing and overpriced medical devices, such as artificial hips and knees — a market dominated by a few manufacturers that, like big drug companies, shun direct competition in favor of building cozy relationships with the people who prescribe their products. In each case, Rosenthal diagnoses the incentives of the system by recalling the professional advice of Willie Sutton, who said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” What outsiders might see as inefficiency or a conflict of interest, she shows, insiders have carefully constructed to maximize their bottom line. She also weaves in moving tales of those who are paying dearly for that enhanced bottom line — which, in the end, includes all of us.

Where Rosenthal’s account falls short is in explaining why this deeply broken system persists. Early on, Rosenthal seems to side with Speaker Ryan and Senator Paul, describing “the very idea of health insurance” as “in some ways the original sin that catalyzed the evolution of today’s medical-industrial complex.” But, as Rosenthal (too briefly) discusses, countries where people are much better insured don’t have anything like our self-dealing, upside-down incentives and outrageous costs. Somehow, despite largely keeping citizens’ skin out of the game, other rich democracies manage to have much lower costs per person — as well as greater utilization of physician and hospital services and better basic health measures.

The fact is that people need insurance for the highest costs they face. They may be able to pay for Lasik, a nonessential, nonemergency procedure for which consumers have plenty of time to shop around. But the biggest-ticket items — cancer care, cardiac surgery, organ transplants — are beyond the reach of all but the richest, and not so easy to shop around for when they’re needed. Just as we shouldn’t blame the idea of mortgages for the financial crisis, we shouldn’t blame the idea of health insurance for the health care crisis.

The difference between the United States and other countries isn’t the role of insurance; it’s the role of government. More specifically, it’s the way in which those who benefit from America’s dysfunctional market have mobilized to use government to protect their earnings and profits. In every country where people have access to sophisticated medical care, they must rely heavily on the clinical expertise of providers and the financial protections of insurance, which, in turn, creates the opportunity for runaway costs. But in every other rich country, the government not only provides coverage to all citizens; it also provides strong counterpressure to those who seek to use their inherent market power to raise prices or deliver lucrative but unnecessary services — typically in the form of hard limits on how much health care providers can charge.


In the United States, such counterpressure has been headed off again and again. The industry and its elected allies have happily supported giveaways to the medical sector. But anything more, they insist, will kill the market. Although this claim is in conflict with the evidence, it is consistent with the goal of maximum rewards to (and donations from) the industry. As a result, Medicare beneficiaries have prescription drug coverage (passed by Republicans in 2003), but Medicare administrators have no ability to do what every other rich country does: negotiate lower drug prices. In January, President Trump said drug companies were “getting away with murder” because they had “a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power,” insisting he would get Medicare to bargain. Should we really be surprised that the dealmaker in chief dropped the subject after meeting with pharma executives earlier this year?

Without a clear view of the political economy of health care, it’s easy to see the problem as Justice Scalia did. If we could just start treating health care like broccoli, the market would solve the problem. But as Rosenthal’s important book makes clear, the health care market really is different. Speaking of her Times series in 2014, Rosenthal told an interviewer her goal was to “start a very loud conversation” that will be “difficult politically to ignore.” We need such a conversation — not just about how the market fails, but about how we can change the political realities that stand in the way of fixing it.

Jacob S. Hacker, a co-author of “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper,” is the Stanley B. Resor professor of political science at Yale.
Original content at New York Times American Sickness Book Review

Frank Fear Reviews Evicted

REVIEW: Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, New York: Crown Publishers, 2016[1]


By Frank A. Fear, professor emeritus, Michigan State University


“Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American values is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”  (p. 313)

Eloquently phrased, so valid and compelling in substance…. Those words gave me great pause for thought.

I thought about America. How did it get this way? I thought about me. How can I make a difference?

The most sobering thought of all was this: nothing Matthew Desmond writes about is new.

At various levels we know severe poverty exists in this country. But most of us live a world apart—apart occupationally, economically, socially, and institutionally. But it’s different geographically. Wander a bit from Main Street or the suburbs. You’ll find it. And it’s closer than you think … often too close for comfort.

Desmond’s book should make us feel uncomfortable. He helps us confront this “other reality” in vivid and sometimes raw terms.

For me, the most discomforting part of the book was Desmond’s treatment of profit. There’s money to be made in the slums. Landlords, lenders, and other actors profit on the backs of vulnerable people—people living hardscrabble lives who don’t always know what tomorrow will bring.

Exploitation, now there’s a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate,” Desmond writes (p. 305). I won’t forget that phrasing.

I didn’t read Evicted from cover to cover. I read Part One (through p. 107) to get grounded. Intrigued by the study design, I then turned to the end of the book and read about Desmond’s methodology (“About This Project,” pp. 315-336). Wondering about Desmond’s overall conclusions and recommendations I next read “Epilogue: Home and Hope” (pp. 293-313).

I used Epilogue as the foundation for reading the rest of the book. I highlighted (literally so, by marker) supporting documentation (the material cited in footnotes) and connected that evidentiary material to vignettes about people and relationships. Connecting those two domains—data about poverty (important to me as social scientist) with stories about poverty (important to me as citizen activist)—made the book come alive.

After finishing the book I spent time thinking about the meaning of Evicted. I concluded that it’s a Call to Arms. We must do more, and do better, as stewards of the commonwealth. Desmond says as much:

“Working on behalf of the common good is the engine of democracy, vital to our communities, cities, and states—and, ultimately, the nation. It is “an outflow of the idealism and moralism of the American people, wrote Gunner Myrdal.” (p. 294)

What might we do to serve the common good? I offer two recommendations. The first has to do with our role as benefactors. The second pertains to our role as political actors.

As Benefactors. A benefactor is a kindly helper. Millions of Americans are benefactors in the fight against poverty. We serve by volunteering time and giving money to America’s nonprofit agencies.

Not all agency work is the same, though. A good share of the work involves providing people relief from poverty and some of it targets the causes of poverty. If you’re like me then you’ve devoted more attention to relief and less to cause-remediation.

When I served as president of a municipal food bank I watched the client roll grow. More people needed food assistance. Many were children. Many were senior citizens. Many were “new kinds of people,” people you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with hunger, such as out-of-work professionals.

How could this be happening in America, I thought? I wasn’t the only person asking that question. And many times I heard this answer: “There will always be poor people in America. Our moral responsibility is to tend to their needs.”

Relief services certainly have a place. But raising more money to provide relief services to more and more people is an endless routine. It capitulates to the forces that cause hunger. And it makes benefactors problem responders, not problem solvers.

I believe America needs to reinvigorate its efforts to address the causes of poverty. One way to do that is by concentrating more time and money on agencies, programs, and services that target the causes of poverty by addressing those causes directly.

But it isn’t easy to identify those initiatives. Why? First, many evaluation systems only use financial indicators to judge nonprofit merit and quality (e.g., % of budget devoted to administration). Fiscal accountability is important, but it only gets at how agencies operate. Second, resources to help Americans make nonprofit choices don’t always do a good job of differentiating among diverse initiatives. Disparate activities are often lumped in a generic category, such as “Fighting Poverty.”

We need to be inquisitive and discriminating, first, then declarative and active, next. Volunteer. Serve on a committee. Become a board member. Make targeted financial contributions to projects with high impact. Endow a program to make a long-term difference.

I’m more convinced than ever—thanks, in part, to reading Evicted—that we must speak openly and passionately about shifting primary emphasis in this country from relief to remediation. Then we must act.

As Political Actors. Nonprofit initiatives are important, but local, state and national-level policies represent the cornerstone of transformation. With that in mind I very much like Desmond’s proposal—to expand the housing voucher program (pp. 308ff).

Sadly, though, poverty isn’t a primary concern politically in this country — and it hasn’t been a primary concern for nearly a half century. That’s why we don’t have the policies we need to attack poverty aggressively.

What a difference that is from the America of my youth! Poverty was on the national radar screen in the 1960s: we had a “War on Poverty.” Then the focus shifted substantially—from a progressive stance emphasizing commonwealth to a neoliberal ethic accentuating individual achievement.

“Capitalism … /has been celebrated/… not only as a wealth-generating engine,” David Brooks wrote recently, “it also … / became/ … a moral system, a way to arouse hard work, creativity and trust.” The creed? Focus on what you can get for yourself. “Everyone else can take care of themselves.”

The political rhetoric shifted correspondingly, too, from a Kennedy-esque “what I can do for my country” to cries for cutting taxes, shrinking government, and trimming regulations—three pillars of The Reagan Revolution. We hear those same cries today.

For decades, neither major political party made poverty a priority—even though data have shown clearly and consistently that a good share of America is being left behind. It’s the same in this election cycle. Poverty has been an off-and-on topic, mostly off, and sometimes back on, largely as a result of external pressure.

In September The New York Times Editorial Board published an opinion piece entitled, “The Failure to Talk Frankly About Poverty.” Hillary Clinton followed with plan to help America’s poor, but that plan was evaluated as lacking when compared to what other Western countries have done and are doing (e.g., Great Britain).

Part of the challenge is the way political parties go about their business. They use a routine I call “The Three P’s”Philosophy, Policies, and Programs. Party partisans talk about values they hold (Philosophy), the legislation they’ve enacted in the past and are pending today (Policies), and initiatives they’ve funded or intend to fund (Programs). Data and expert opinion are used to support the contention that America is “better off” (or at least improving) because of the party’s work. Then, on the flip side, party partisans use the Three P’s to argue that America has been hurt by what the other party stands for, has done in the past, and proposes to do in the future.

This either-or routine is patently familiar, the stuff of which stump speeches, party platforms, and candidate-authored Op Ed’s are made. That routine is connected intractably to what Desmond writes about poverty on pp. 316-17. For Conservatives the poverty narrative is mostly about individual deficiencies (e.g., having children out of wedlock). For Liberals the focus is largely on structural forces (e.g., loss of manufacturing jobs).

Desmond proposes another way of framing the poverty debate, a way that makes more sense to me as a Progressive—not just substantively, but morally as well. He sees poverty as a relationship involving poor and rich (emphasis added):

To understand poverty…I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.” (p. 317)

Desmond’s approach acknowledges that we (not just “they”) have a problem. It emphasizes our collective responsibility to serve the public good. And it’s a much-needed antidote to neoliberal self-centeredness.

How might we help that type of thinking grow and bear fruit? The first step is creating broader awareness of what’s going on—to become “Desmond’s Disciples,” as it were. But spreading the gospel won’t be easy. Survey data reveal that a majority of Americans (almost 70%) believe that people are responsible for their own welfare. And over 70% of those surveyed are pessimistic that poverty can be eliminated—even if the government made poverty a high priority.

Because change won’t come easily, I believe in approaching change as a political endeavor. What political acts might we take? Here are several examples.

Host a reading circle in your home with Evicted as common reading. Better yet, contact your local library and offer to organize a reading group in your community.

Write an Op Ed about Evicted for your hometown paper. Describe what’s going on in America and discuss its implications. Follow that up by writing a series of pieces about poverty, the plight of people, and what we can do—as everyday Americans and as a country—to address it.

Become knowledgeable about poverty-related legislation that’s before your state legislature and Congress. Identify representatives who support or oppose policies that lift people out of poverty. Endorse those who do. Volunteer to work on their campaigns. Speak out against those who don’t support poverty legislation. A good way to express support and oppose is by writing Letters to the Editor of your hometown newspaper.

Affiliate with local, state, and national-level poverty-focused organizations. Work with others to advance a political agenda that addresses poverty directly.

The bottom line: Do what you can and as much as you can. Lives hang in the balance.

If you think that interpretation is an exaggeration, consider what Jennifer Senior wrote in her review of Evicted:

“How can you hang on to a job, send your child to school, or build roots in a community if you are constantly changing homes, each one more dilapidated and dangerously located than the next?”

Repeat those words to anybody who questions your activism.

Would they want to live their lives that way? Certainly not. If they did, would they want others to care about them? Probably yes.

We should care about those who live this way—today, right here, in America. And we should do something about it.

So let us.

[1] SYNOPSIS (from “Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a sociological study of evictions, housing, and homelessness in Milwaukee. The book follows the lives of a number of tenants and landlords in order to examine how access to housing affects the poor. Desmond also includes historical background, statistics, and research findings to provide context for his narratives…. /The study shows that/…eviction is hugely disruptive, and those who are evicted face loss of property, intensified poverty, and an erosion in quality of housing. Evictions also disrupt jobs, and may increase depression and addiction. It’s not only that poverty contributes to housing precarity; housing precarity contributes to poverty. Moreover, a home can spell the difference between stable poverty, in which saving and advancement are possible, and grinding poverty, in which one staggers from crisis to crisis.”



Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#


First Impressions from Catana Barnes



The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier. pg 115: Momme, 2008


November 23rd, 2015

My “first impression” of Latoya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family was how much it reminded me of the F.S.A. (Farm Security Administration) project.  With that project, which sought to garner economic support for various social programs in response to the Depression, the goal of the photographer was directed by those who sought specific economic packages from Congress.  At the beginning of the project, the photographers focused on the plight of people, with many people not being represented, and how much they needed help. It was then determined that the photographs weren’t showing enough of a positive outcome from the economic programs currently in place so the photographers were directed to show positive outcomes; with many continuing to be left out of the equation. What I find to be the most compelling part of the F.S.A.’s project is what they chose to leave out of their visual and historical narrative. What was left out is the fact that photographers, like Dorothea Lange, had no control over the narrative of the image, the photographer’s authorship and perspective, as well as which images would be used. The photographers were denied their role in providing their visual representation of the dire situation and the struggles of the people. This terrified me and made me question every single image I have ever looked at.  It comes down to the artifact; directed and undirected. Ms. Frazier, her mother and her grandmother took control over the authorship and perspective of their place in the history of Braddock, PA and, in my opinion, opened doors for further exploration with regards to the authorship and perspective in social documentary of photography.

In addition, I was stricken with how much I was reminded of Dorothea Lange’s images in her work as an F.S.A. photographer. I have always felt as though she had a special vision whereby she was able to see what needed to be framed in order to be compliant with the project while, at the same time, she was able to see what needed to be translated to the viewer…the ultimate message.  I did not study Dorothea Lange much beyond her contribution to the F.S.A. so I do not know what she thought about having to create directed artifacts. The notion of an artifact’s truthfulness is something I have put a great deal of thought into and what ultimately led to the motivation behind the photographic series I created as an advanced photography student (I received an Undergraduate Academic Affairs & Research Grant to complete the project and it can be found at ). Like Ms. Frazier, her mother and her grandmother, I also took control of the authorship and perspective of the photographic social documentary I created. I wanted to challenge the traditional notion of what a photographic artifact is, who creates the artifact as well as to challenge the perspective of the creator of the artifact. My project was greatly influenced by what I learned about the F.S.A. as well as what I learned through the work of Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin (see below for a link to Nan Goldin’s work) whom I truly admire for their candidness.

catana barnes speakingAs I worked my way to the end of Ms. Frazier’s work, I also recognized a similarity with Nan Goldin’s work . Nan Goldin’s work is extremely poignant and draws the viewer into the world they are witness to. In both works, the viewer is presented with a question, “do you recognize this?” and then they must rectify, in their minds, whether or not they do “recognize that” which has been presented to them. I find the strongest messages to be found in what is not being directly addressed, and I see that twofold in Ms. Frazier’s The Notion of Family. This is one of the most compelling works I have had the pleasure of experiencing since my undergraduate studies as an art student!

“First Impression” – While I have looked through Latoya Ruby Frazier’s Notion of Family more than once, I wanted to share my first impression because I believe that it continues with the spirit and notion that first impressions are not always accurate.

Catana L Barnes

Catana Barnes is the President of Independent Voters of Nevada.


Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST


641 715-3605

Code 767775#

The Washington Post Reviews Gateway to Freedom


Fugitive slaves could travel the Underground Railroad, a “series of local networks” in cities from Virginia to Canada. (Library of Congress)

                                             January 23, 2015

The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad  By Eric Foner


The Underground Railroad figured prominently in the politics of slavery and freedom in antebellum America. Yet it has confounded modern historians, who have tended either to exaggerate its scope or to dismiss it as largely mythological. In his carefully argued new book, Eric Foner aims to set the record straight. Drawing on his deep expertise in the history of abolitionism, Foner demonstrates that one cannot understand the origins of the American Civil War without taking into account the resistance and activism of fugitive slaves and their antislavery allies.

Foner’s focus is on the beleaguered and intrepid cadre of operatives who ran New York City’s Underground Railroad hub in the 1850s. The city was part of an “interlocking series of local networks” that stretched from Virginia into Canada, constituting the railroad’s Northeastern corridor. The book’s early chapters set the stage, explaining that New York was no bastion of abolitionism but instead a zone of conflict over slavery. Lagging behind other Northern states, the Empire State did not abolish slavery until 1827. Even after abolition, slavery persisted because of an 1817 state law that permitted Southern slaveowners, who thronged Manhattan on business and as tourists, to bring slaves along for up to nine months without those slaves becoming free. Moreover, the problem of kidnapping plagued the city, as it did Philadelphia. Whites routinely seized free blacks, claimed fraudulently that they were slaves and, with the blessing of corrupt local officials, sold them or hauled them off to the South.

These outrages did not go unchallenged. In the 1830s, free black activists in New York, such as David Ruggles and Theodore S. Wright, led a “Vigilance Committee” that combated kidnapping, aided fugitive slaves and lobbied for black civil rights. Working in tandem with white abolitionists such as Lewis Tappan, black activists achieved some notable successes, such as the repeal, in 1841, of the law that had permitted Southern masters to bring their slaves into New York. But fugitives from the South remained in a special legal category, liable, according to the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and a 1793 law, to recapture and rendition. Alarmed by the rise of Vigilance Committees and of antislavery sentiment in the North, Southern slaveholders demanded more vigorous law enforcement.

With the passage in 1850 of a new, more stringent Fugitive Slave Law that enlisted federal marshals and commissioners in slave-catching, the Underground Railroad had to extend its reach beyond the North and into Canada. New York City’s network rose to this challenge, with Sydney Howard Gay, the meticulous and principled editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, emerging as its chronicler and Louis Napoleon, a black porter who worked in Gay’s newspaper office, as its most resourceful agent. Once Foner turns to the stories of these men, his book hits its stride, as he is able to tap a rich and overlooked source: Gay’s remarkable “Record of Fugitives,” which provides detailed accounts of the journeys of about 200 of the more than 1,000 escaped slaves who passed through the city in the 1850s. When cross-referenced with William Still’s equally rich chronicle of fugitive slaves who sojourned in Philadelphia on their way to points north, Gay’s record book makes it possible to explain with great precision both why and how slaves fled slavery.

Fugitives testified to Gay that the primary motivation for slave flight was the physical abuse they suffered at the hands of their masters; the second most prominent motive for escape was the grim prospect of sale. Most fugitives left family members behind in the South, while some ran away to be reunited with relatives who had already fled. Many hoped to return to the South to rescue their family members. Fugitives passing through New York most often escaped in groups rather than individually, and they used a wide variety of means. Some paid ship captains for clandestine passage from Southern ports such as Norfolk to the North; others appropriated horses or carriages or set out on foot. Such ruses would not have been possible had slaves not found whites willing, for moral or pecuniary reasons, to help them — whites such as Albert Fountain of Virginia, whose schooner the City of Richmond ran fugitives through Wilmington.

Foner dispels the lingering aura of myth surrounding the Underground Railroad by documenting scores of stirring escapes. For example, he details the May 1856 flight of four fugitives — Ben Jackson, James Coleman, William Connoway and Henry Hopkins — who set out on foot from Dorchester County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for the distant haven of Canada. They had to run a gauntlet, slipping through the slave state of Delaware and then traversing Pennsylvania and New York, states crawling with slave-hunters who sought to collect the rewards that masters posted for capturing and remanding fugitives. In the end, the four men succeeded, thanks to the ability of local networks to work in concert. Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett secured them passage through Wilmington; Still charted their course from Philadelphia to New York; and Gay sent them to Syracuse and on to Canada. Tubman and Still were African American, Garrett and Gay were white — the Underground Railroad, like the broader abolitionist movement, represented the possibility of an interracial politics in which whites and blacks not only made common cause but also shared leadership roles.

With antislavery newspapers trumpeting its success, the Underground Railroad was by the mid-1850s a quasi-public institution and the target of slaveholders’ growing anger and resentment. But for all its success, the Underground Railroad’s story is not one of linear progress. Fugitives in New York remained on precarious footing; as Foner notes, “New York City’s ties with the slave South seemed to solidify as the sectional conflict deepened.” Not until the Civil War started did the antislavery movement gain inexorable momentum. A mass wartime exodus of slaves from Southern farms and plantations to Union lines motivated Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the belated repeal, in 1864, of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The freedom struggle would grind on, against terrible odds. But the Underground Railroad had provided it with heroes, as beacons to the light the way.

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

The Blue Unholies


A literary alchemist assumes the presidency.

by Paul Hond                        Published Spring 2014

Photograph by Jörg Meyer

Photograph by Jörg Meyer

Jerome Charyn, dressed in baggy midnight-blue corduroys and a faded brown leather jacket, approaches the gabled, white stucco, gingerbread-trimmed mansion that sits atop the third highest hill in the District of Columbia. From these heights you can see, four miles to the south, through the bare trees, the Capitol, its dome an apricot bell in the twilight. On the hill’s northern slope, in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, the orderly ranks of identical white grave markers take on the buffed pink of Tennessee marble.

It is the eve of Lincoln’s birthday, and Charyn ’59CC has come here to talk about his latest novel, I Am Abraham.

The Gothic Revival mansion, called Lincoln’s Cottage, stands on the pastoral acreage of the Soldiers’ Home, an asylum established in 1851 to shelter veterans of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. Located about a forty-minute trot from the White House, this breezier elevation offered the president and his family some relief from the summer swelter of downtown. But not from the war: the adjacent cemetery was grimly busy, the dash of shovels within earshot of the cottage windows of the dark-browed, long-faced president.

Charyn enters the house and climbs the narrow wooden staircase. Upstairs, in a large, bare room with white walls and a hardwood floor, nearly fifty people have gathered on folding chairs to hear the novelist who presumed to speak as Lincoln.

Everyone thought I was crazy. Who the hell would want to write a novel in Lincoln’s voice but a madman? But what did I care — all I could do was fail. The question was, could I inhabit that voice?

At the lectern, the novelist opens his book. His gray hair sweeps across his head and over his ears. Deep creases bracket his thin mouth, shadows lurk in the divots of his Artaudian cheekbones. He could be a phantom of some nineteenth-century theater: the desperado in the black cape, peering over his shoulder. Or is it a magician?

He reads from his prologue:

“They could natter till their noses landed on the moon, and I still wouldn’t sign any documents that morning. I wanted to hear what had happened to Lee’s sword at Appomattox.” Lincoln is breakfasting with his son Bob, who, fresh from Lee’s surrender, sits in the Oval Office, his “boot heels on my map table and lighting up a seegar.” Charyn’s cannon bursts of imagery (“Mary appeared in her victory dress — with silver flounces and a blood red bodice. She’d decorated herself for tonight, had bits of coal around her eyes, like Cleopatra”), leading inexorably to the presidential box of Ford’s Theatre “all papered in royal red” — this overture announces, with high brass and offhand aplomb, the novelist’s stupendous purpose.

Who the hell would want to write a novel in Lincoln’s voice but a madman? But what did I care — all I could do was fail.

On the third draft, out of a kind of despair, I somehow entered into Lincoln’s persona, assumed his magic, his language; became him. You’d never be able to internalize it unless it possessed you in a demonic way.

“I leaned forward. The play went on with its own little eternity of rustling sounds. Then I could hear a rustle right behind me. I figured the Metropolitan detective had glided through the inner door of the box to peek at our tranquility.” Lincoln’s imagined tranquility at that moment is a daydream of a pilgrimage with his family to the City of David, where “I wouldn’t have to stare at shoulder straps and muskets. I wouldn’t have to watch the metal coffins arrive at the Sixth Street wharves.” The bullet strikes — and the novel bursts forth in a four-hundred-page flashback of Lincoln’s improbable life.

Hearing Charyn ventriloquize the sixteenth president in elongated Bronxese, in the house where Lincoln read his Shakespeare, worked on the Emancipation Proclamation, and played checkers with young Tad, plucks a democratic string: just as humble Lincoln could become the greatest of presidents, so a son of the Grand Concourse could enter that inscrutable soul with a music that Charyn — inspired by Lionel Trilling’s observation of American literature’s best-known voice as being melodized by the Mississippi and the “truth of moral passion” — imagined as a grown-up Huckleberry Finn. The same Huck Finn who says, early in Twain’s novel, “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead.”

Once, when he was in his twenties, people were frightened that he would kill himself, so they took his razors away.

In Lincoln’s day, Charyn tells the audience, depression was called “the hypos” — what Melville’s Ishmael, in Moby-Dick, terms “a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” an affliction which, when it gets “such an upper hand of me,” impels him to take to the sea. Charyn, from his witch’s cauldron of words, provides his Abraham a pet name for his malady: the blue unholies.

You don’t suddenly become melancholic in your twenties. It happens very early, but you find ways of hiding it. Then suddenly you can’t hide it and you sort of break down, and part of the survival is admitting that you’ve broken down. I think this happened to Lincoln several times.

Charyn as a child was a brooding loner. His relatives had all been gripped by depression. When his own hypos came a-calling, Charyn took to the movie house, salving himself with grainy pictorial potions that he would later alchemize into prose. His home life was hell. His father, a furrier with a failing business, resented his younger son, who was the ruby of Mrs. Charyn’s eye. In his father’s eyes, the boy saw anger, jealousy, hostility — “he’d look at me like I was taking up his space.”

© Bettmann / Corbis

© Bettmann / Corbis

I do believe that Lincoln’s relationship with his mother was profound. He loved his mother deeply. We know he didn’t get along with his father, and that he had a lot of problems with his father.

The house in the Bronx was filled with taxidermied, fur-bearing animals. Charyn remembers bears. Bears all around.

When he was five or six, his father took him to see Henry Fonda in Immortal Sergeant. Afterward, on the street, Mr. Charyn asked his son a terrible question. He asked him which of his parents he loved more. What answer could a child give?

His father hated slavery, and a lot of Lincoln’s reactions to slavery come from his father. His father was also a great storyteller, and many of Lincoln’s stories clearly come from what he heard from his father. His father was a carpenter, and Lincoln was a great carpenter. His father taught him how to shoot, though Lincoln didn’t like to kill animals. He once killed a wild turkey and said, “I’m never going to kill another animal again.” Then he ends up being president of the United States, and having to kill hundreds of thousands of people.

The young Mr. Lincoln wrote a poem called “The Bear Hunt.” He is also the likely author of “The Suicide’s Soliloquy,” an unsigned poem written in the form of a suicide note, in which the narrator stabs himself in the heart.

Lincoln had two major bouts of depression: one was after the death of Ann Rutledge. He couldn’t bear the thought of the rain pounding on her grave.

Many scholars suspect Rutledge was Lincoln’s great love. In Charyn’s novel, the naive Lincoln has a minor sexual brush with the young barmaid that intoxicates him and upsets the delicate cart of his tender feeling toward her. When Rutledge dies of typhoid at twenty-two, Lincoln is disconsolate.

The second major attack, Charyn says, came when Lincoln broke off his engagement to Mary Todd, beside whose aristocratic majesty Lincoln felt like a rawboned yokel. Charyn doesn’t buy the notion of Mary as a hellcat who only terrorized her poor husband. To the novelist, Mary is the force behind Lincoln’s rise to office, a woman of brilliance and ambition who, as First Lady, is reduced, maddeningly, to the role of White House decorator.

I think he deeply loved Mary. I think he fell in love with her right away.

At forty, Charyn went through a breakup that fairly crushed him. Anguished and guilt-stricken, the novelist lay helplessly in bed for a month, in the cold clasp of the blue unholies.

Writing a novel is a literal dying. It’s a kind of death. Because it occupies you in an absolute, total, visceral way. It’s everything or it’s nothing; there’s no in-between.

(Charyn has died approximately thirty-four times. His first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, was published fifty years ago.)

After the talk, Charyn moves to an adjoining room and sits at a long table to sign books. A bitter night has fallen on the cottage and on the cemetery at the foot of the hill, its stones lit bone-white under a nearly full moon. Behind Charyn, a large wooden checkerboard rests on a small stand, the pieces the size of hockey pucks.

A signature seeker opens a copy of I Am Abraham and asks the author about Lincoln’s literary interests.

“Lincoln read the Bible, Euclid, Shakespeare, probably Bunyan,” Charyn says, and scratches his name on the title page. “He knew Shakespeare’s plays, saw them in Washington. Macbeth was his favorite. In the Spielberg movie, he quotes Hamlet: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’ I love Hamlet. It’s really the source of everything for me. You take this murderer and turn him into a prince. He’s a murderer! He hears a ghost, he brings down a kingdom, he’s in love with his mother, he drives a girl to suicide — all out of hearing what he thinks is the voice of his father.”

It appears, says the signature seeker, that the poet of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address — and “The Bear Hunt” — had read the right authors: for Melville, too, with his damp Novembers, had read Shakespeare and the Bible.

“Melville may have read Shakespeare and the Bible,” Charyn says. “But his language really comes from the sea.”

The holy blue. Of course. The truth of it seems self-evident.

But what, then, of Lincoln? What was his sea?

Charyn considers.

“Lincoln’s poetry was deepened by the war,” he says. “His sea is the dying of the soldiers. Once the soldiers begin to die, his language deepens, and everything becomes a kind of dirge. He’s in perpetual mourning.”



P4P Conference Call

with Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST

The New York Times Review


Monument Man

‘I Am Abraham,’ by Jerome Charyn


No president has written as well as Abraham Lincoln. He could thrill, reason, prophesy, mourn and crack jokes. Who wouldn’t want to read a book in his own words — all the more enticing if it scanted the political and administrative minutiae that fill his collected works and gave us a window into his inner life?

Even if Lincoln hadn’t been murdered, he would never have written such a book. For an often garrulous man, he was notoriously tight-lipped about anything he didn’t want to say in a proclamation or from a podium. Biographers and historians have labored to fill the gaps. Jerome Charyn takes the approach of fiction.

“I Am Abraham” is an interior monologue, with Lincoln surveying his own life. Charyn’s novel follows the course of known events from 1831, when Lincoln left his father and stepmother and struck out on his own, until April 1865, when he visited Richmond, Va., conquered capital of the Confederacy. Only one character of any consequence — a female Pinkerton agent — is entirely invented, and Charyn assures us in an author’s note that Pinkerton did use women agents.

Abraham Lincoln, 1864. Library of Congress


Charyn’s best touch is Lincoln’s voice: thoughtful, observant and droll, good for the long narrative haul. Its ground bass is Kentucky rube. Lincoln says “the-ay-ter” and seems amused that he continues to say so even though he has become president of the United States. He varies this tone with echoes of the Bible, poetry and speeches from the the-ay-ter. (He describes his wife, Mary, retreating after one of their fights “into her bedroom in the crepe of a demented queen.”)

Readers may be surprised by how lewd this Lincoln can be. Do you want a recollection of the first time he felt a woman’s breasts? Of the first time he had intercourse? It’s all here. But the historical Lincoln’s arsenal of jokes did include obscene ones. Readers may also be struck by how lurid early-19th-century America seems through his eyes. His description of the Clary’s Grove Boys, a posse of toughs who confronted, then befriended him after he first moved to Illinois, reads like Midwest magic realism. “Their eyes were painted black, their noses masked with bits of red cloth, making them look sinister as ghouls; they had spikes in their arms and straw hats with missing crowns and rough, rawhide boots; their single ornament was a neckerchief with yellow polka dots that flashed in the sun and could be observed a quarter-mile away.”

Charyn’s Lincoln is a man of sorrows. Presiding over the Civil War would do that to anybody, but here the sorrows are traced back to an unsympathetic father and to the death of Ann Rutledge, his first sweetheart. Today we would call Lincoln depressed and give him pills. The man himself calls his bouts of gloom “unholies” and “the hypo” (from hypochondriasis) and just tries to ride them out.

Some famous men appear in this Lincoln’s thoughts — Stephen Douglas, George McClellan, Ulysses Grant — but the main figures in “I Am Abraham” are family. Mary Lincoln is the Kentucky belle who charms and arouses him even after her fragile personality develops irreparable cracks. His eldest son, Robert, understands his mother and soothes her, but wants her committed. His youngest son, Tad, is an undisciplined imp who has a speech impediment, yet alone of the family accompanies his father in the book’s final set piece, the apocalyptic visit to Richmond.

What’s missing? Lincoln seems to think hardly at all about his writing. If that were true, then he would have been the first and only writer in history to do so. Still less credible is the near absence of politics. Charyn presents Lincoln as stumbling into high office, guided by handlers and prodded by Mary. Yet William Herndon, his law partner, testified that his ambition was “a little engine that knew no rest.” Politicians are even more absorbed in their work than writers, recalling every hand they’ve shaken, every back they’ve stabbed. A real transcript of Lincoln’s thoughts would read a lot like Machiavelli (if he were moral) or the Sunday morning talk shows (if they were intelligent).

Where, finally, is God? Lincoln thought about him, off and on, all his adult life, more and more as the war ground on. A month before Charyn’s conclusion, he delivered an Inaugural Address that was indistinguishable from a sermon. But God is pretty much M.I.A. here. Charyn’s Lincoln, like the historical one, does feel the depth of the wound slavery leaves on America. Next year, the first black president will preside over the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, yet demagogues, policy nerds and idealists still pick at the scab of race. It is our national “hypo.”


A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

By Jerome Charyn

Richard Brookhiser’s most recent book is “James Madison.”

Meeting Lincoln through Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham

Hope everyone has gotten their copy of I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and The Civil War by Jerome Charyn.

I am always interested in how a book gets its title.  In the case of our current selection, “I Am Abraham“, the title refers to the first words that Abraham Lincoln ever wrote.

To enhance your reading:

Here is a short YouTube video of Jerome Charyn talking with Jack Ford about his novel, filled with tidbits to enjoy.


If the video does not appear you can see it here.

And here is a short review that appeared in The New Yorker last year.

Books MARCH 17, 2014 ISSUE

Briefly Noted


I AM ABRAHAM, by Jerome Charyn (Liveright). This daring novel narrates the life of Abraham Lincoln, focussing less on the broad strokes of history and wartime politics than on the intimate daily life of the Lincoln household. The portrayal of Mary as a Kentucky belle whose assertiveness had no socially acceptable outlets in her time, and whose fits of madness rivalled Lincoln’s own depressions, is particularly memorable. Secondary characters, some real and some imagined, include a feisty female Pinkerton who saves Lincoln’s life from an assassination attempt. Charyn’s richly textured portrait captures the pragmatism, cunning, despair, and moral strength of a man who could have empathy for his bitterest foes, and who “had never outgrown the forest and a dirt floor.”


Our conference call

with Jerome Charyn will be on

Sunday, February 15th at 7 pm EST.

A Few Thoughts About Our Declaration

Although Our Declaration is nominally about how the Declaration of Independence was written, it is also about how the American Revolution was produced.

Allen’s account shows the American Revolution was not an idealistic or utopian whim, but a political choice that the colonists made, in the first instance, because the government of King George had, quite literally, ceased to function in the American colonies.  Whatever else it was, the revolution was a pragmatic response to the threat of social and political chaos.

Lou Hinman, Center

Her examination of “democratic writing” is thought provoking.  Can we imagine our current political representatives in Washington cooperating in a task of magnitude comparable to the Declaration of Independence?  No way!  Democratic writing is one of the many complex organizing tasks that are only possible when people are struggling with all their might to create something new together.

For these reasons, I think Our Declaration is significant for the independent political movement.  Have not the vast majority of our nominal political leaders ceased also to carry out the functions of government?  Have they not ceased to work together for the good of the commonwealth?  The independent movement is a revolution in the making — a non-violent one — to restore the collective creativity of the American people.

Lou Hinman
New York City

Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

The Facets of Equality

The Case for Equality

A Review by Anthony Del Signore

In contemporary political jargon the word equality almost becomes pejorative. Some argue that equality is synonymous with social justice and should be superseded by individualism. In this interpretation, we are all endowed with “equality of opportunity” in which we are all lined up at the starting line and due to our faculties and talents we will either succeed or fail. Others make the claim that the United States should do more to alleviate inequality – a term almost universally applicable to economics. Neither claim is made by Danielle Allen in Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Instead she focuses exclusively on equality in a political sense. In her nearly 300 page tract, she delves into the intricacies of who the founders were, how they came to choose the words that we see today, and how their ideas manifest themselves in those words. Specifically, she makes the argument that the 1,337 words written in the Declaration of Independence succinctly make the argument for equal political empowerment.

Anthony Del Signore

Anthony Del Signore

She reaches this conclusion through a painstaking reading and re-reading of the Declaration, taking each word and digesting its meaning, its context, and its placement among the other words. She makes particular note of the Declaration’s punctuation. The use of dashes versus periods, commas versus colons, all are meticulously accounted for. All of a sudden a hyphen becomes a necessary transitional mark, allowing the Declaration to flow from the individual to the collective. It is akin to a skilled painter, carefully calculating each brush stroke, framing them in the greater picture he or she is about to create. Allen is the skilled painter in this sense and we are merely guests in her art gallery. What we are viewing is a striking portrait of the Declaration’s “Five Facets of Equality” which become particularly clear if we were only to give the Declaration the time it deserves. The five facets are brilliant in their simplicity and so rich in meaning despite their brevity.

The first facet of equality is simply that the colonies and Great Britain are both sovereign. Sovereignty is a novel concept denoting not only freedom and independence but equality with other sovereigns. Thus, the United States can stand side by side with Great Britain as brothers and sisters in the international community. But, what ensures the United States’ sovereignty? Perhaps a better question: what ensures the continuation of government? Just look at the language of the Declaration, according to Allen. “We hold these truths to be self-evident… – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, the individual is politically empowered and equal in his or her own ability to dissolve the government if it cannot secure these rights which are self-evident. Therefore, the United States and Great Britain are both equal in their duties to the people to protect their rights with the consent of the governed.

The second facet of equality ties well into the first and creates a syllogism, as Allen rightly points out, between the individual and the collective.  This second facet is that “all men are created equal.” It is a simple, yet powerful statement. This statement goes beyond equality of opportunity, despite what many politicos assert. It again reaches into the domain of equal political empowerment. We are equal to use government as a tool for securing our happiness. We have equal capacity to look upon our communities and change as we deem necessary. Why would the Declaration bring this up? Although Allen does not go into it, it seems that this point is an argument for unity. Not unity in the sense that every colonist is for independence. The Founders knew quite well that was not the case. Rather, unity in that this principle of equality is accepted, everyone’s voices can be heard, grievances aired, and a political consensus can be had. This is not possible under the shackles of oppression the British Crown had on the colonists.

The third facet of equality Allen calls “epistemic egalitarianism,” also known as the “potluck method.” In this the Founders relied upon extensive networks of common people to relay their everyday lives and how those lives were affected by colonial oppression. Through these communications, a list of grievances was created. This list compromise 18 “facts” – as Allen rightly calls them – which “paint the portrait of a tyrant.” But these facts are not haphazard; they are meticulously chosen and worded. They prove political points on how government ought to be administered. Perhaps Allen herself says it most succinctly: “we can strengthen our individual and collective capacity to analyze the relation between present and future by drawing everyone into the work of understanding the course of human events.”

The fourth facet is the idea of “reciprocal responsiveness” – or, equality in relationships among participants. In this, the colonists are asking for redress for past wrongs committed against them (the list of grievances), only to have the door figuratively shut in their face. How can freedom be secured without dialogue? It simply cannot. Thus equality and freedom are tied inextricably together as freedom for the individual is tied to equality as a collective. Once again Allen makes it clear: equal political empowerment is what she means by equality.

The final facet of equality is, I believe, the most important. We all have equal ownership of the political order in which we live. We have equal opportunity to participate, to vote, to speak, to write, to petition, to protest, to run for office, to do a whole host of things which improve our collective community and our individual lives. It is romantic in its imagery yet startling in its implications. A single mother of four has as much political power as the Koch brothers (in theory). Perhaps this equality is the one in which contemporary society has forgotten the most. Since Citizens United, and even before that going back to the ‘70s, money in politics skews our ability to equally participate in our political order. Even more striking is the sheer inequality between partisans and non-partisans. In an overwhelming number of elections nationwide the vote of the non-partisan is meaningless as elections are decided well before the general election. While Democrats and Republicans shut out the vote of the non-partisan, a skewed and frankly inaccurate picture of the electorate is formed. In a political sense, non-partisans are treated as second class citizens. This broken system leads inevitably to the injustices the Founders were trying to rid themselves of. This being said, it is quite clear that our political system does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea of equal political ownership. Nevertheless, on the local level equality of participation is alive and well. Any one of us can participate on community boards, in town hall meetings, and serve in an elected capacity. This I do not believe will ever change and is a testament to the Declaration’s assertion of equal political ownership.

Allen’s book brings to light an argument lost in the political vacuum created when anyone brings up the Founding Fathers. Most use the Founders’ language as a call to their specific ideology, when in reality, the Founders probably would not agree with that ideology. They were radicals of their time, yet steadfast in their mission. Disgusted with the old political order, these men set out to blaze a trail for a new and independent people; a people whose principles are based upon… equality.

Anthony Del Signore is a senior at Pace University studying political science.  He has worked in countless political offices and is currently an intern with the New York City Organizations of the Independence Party. Anthony is also a frequent contributor to IVN.


Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

The Washington Post Reviews Our Declaration

Book review: ‘Our Declaration,’ by Danielle Allen

     June 26, 2014

In this algorithmic age of quants, wonks and hackers, where statistics and big data take all the credit for explaining the world, Danielle Allen, a political philosopher at the Institute of Advanced Studies, rolls back the numbers to the mere 1,337 words written by our founding fathers and reminds us that words matter, too.

In “Our Declaration,” she applies a geek’s gaze to America’s core text and shows how our founding fathers declared their independence from England in the most spare and carefully chosen of words. Although briefly stated, the declaration brims with large ideas crafted by deliberate and principled men who took on what appeared to be a lost cause. Having exhausted all other means of trying to reason with the tyrannical King George III, they were left with no choice but to break their bond with England.

One idea that is central to Allen’s book is the role of equality in the declaration. In the sound-bite-driven, cliche-laden conversations of our present age, equality, as it appears in the declaration, has been neglected and misapplied. The founding fathers had a clear vision for what they expected of democratic governance. And what they extolled, and what Allen trumpets like a good soldier in the Continental Army, was a co-dependent relationship between equality and freedom — neither was more important than the other.

Yet today freedom permeates our public discourse like an obsession, while equality is regarded as a bastard stepchild of the revolutionary age. Everyone purports to know the meaning of freedom; few have any idea how to comprehend equality, much less apply it. Allen points out, however, that only through equality — and how it elevates the dignity of ordinary people — could the colonies have mustered the intellectual and emotional mettle to finally break free from the crown.

This book sets out to debunk the notion that freedom alone is the supreme virtue arising from the declaration. In doing so, it restores equality to the level of importance it once shared with freedom as equal partners in the revolution that gave birth to a nation. And Allen does not fail to address the limits of what equality meant to these founding white-skinned, land-owning fathers.

Most people have never read the Declaration of Independence all the way through. What passes for generally accepted cocktail-party trivia is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the document, that it says something about “all men being created equal,” and that people have the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — whatever that means.

“Our Declaration” is a primer on all we have been missing. First, Jefferson was not the sole author. There were many contributors to this evolving document, including the man who inscribed the words on the parchment and the female publisher of the broadside that brought these fiery words to the people. Each made stylistic changes to the declaration that were not in Jefferson’s original.

Indeed, the Committee of Five — Jefferson and the other authors, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston — proved that sometimes having too many cooks in the kitchen can result in the perfect revolutionary meal. What Jefferson delivered was treated as a most malleable first draft. It was edited down considerably and stripped of the Lord of Monticello’s flowery, hyperventilated language. God was added ; the condemnation of slavery was removed. No one can truly claim authorship of the declaration, which is a good thing, to Allen’s mind, since it represented the important first step in the functioning of a new government committed to democratic ideals.

Even those members of the Continental Congress who were not among the declaration’s collaborative authors nonetheless participated in spirited debates and procedural dealmaking about what should go into the document. In contrast to the fractitiousness and coarsened debate of today’s Congress, our founding fathers created a precedent for political consensus-building at its most elegant and refined.

“The art of democratic writing supports the development of collective intelligence and does not seek credit. It does not know intellectual pride,” Allen writes. “The Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement — such a maddening quantity of group writing — are necessary for justice.”

Allen knows a little about how group learning can enrich the minds of a community. Indeed, “Our Declaration” developed in somewhat the same way that the founding fathers assembled the actual declaration. For years Allen taught the declaration to privileged college students during the day and students with financial and family challenges at night. What better way to experience the majesty of the declaration, and glean its deeper meanings, than to read it closely, surrounded by citizens of varying backgrounds all representing the polity of 21st-century America? Her class was a collective exercise of getting inside the heads of men of the Enlightened 18th century by parsing their precise words. The stakes were far less fraught, to be sure, but in its own way Allen’s dissection of the declaration matched those exhilarating and transformative early sessions of the Continental Congress.

“Our Declaration” is not just an invaluable civics lesson but also a poignant personal memoir. Allen, her family and her students are characters in a post-American Revolution tale. The professor learned the mysteries of the declaration with the aid of her students, seeing in them the very embodiment of what the founding fathers wished to bequeath to future generations of Americans.

With a light touch that does nothing to conceal her civic fervor, Allen is an evangelist for this romantic moment in American history when men of uncommon vision and political deftness stated their case and listed their grievances against the most powerful nation on Earth.

Thane Rosenbaum , a novelist, essayist and law professor at New York University, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society and the author, most recently, of “Payback: The Case for Revenge.”


Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

  • Independent Lens

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 355 other followers

  • Featured Links

  • Categories

  • Facebook

  • Links