Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article with a novel take on the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence:
The error, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., concerns a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript, but almost certainly not, she maintains, on the badly faded parchment original.
But let’s back up. The Declaration (text found here) begins with the famous “When in the Course of human events…” passage explaining that a declaration of the causes that “impel them to the separation”. Next is a list of the self-evident truths:
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, –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.
Under the Ms. Allen’s interpretation, the period following “Happiness” is not found in the original document, that it was mistakenly added in later transcripts. (The original is too damaged to verify the period.)
And you might be asking, so what? Ms. Allen uses this detail to argue that the role of government in the Declaration has been given short shrift:
The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.
“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
This raises a number of points:
- This sentence — “That to secure these rights…” is not the only one that follows like this. The next sentence, the one that cites the right of the people to alter or abolish that government, is also separated from the previous sentence by a dash. The separation of the sentences is not a one-time anomaly.
- As the article points out, in the official broadside commissioned by Congress, and in the 1823 copperplate built to replicate the original, both contain the period. The article points out other versions lacking the period, but if the period shows up in the versions designed to preserve the content, how good can the contrary proof be?
- After gaining independence and taking the opportunity to install such a government, America erred on the side of weakness in the central government in the Articles of Confederation.
- The Declaration has no legally binding power, so why engage in all of these textual gymnastics? Why argue that the power of the government should be given more weight than it allegedly has been over history? And why is the next right – the right of the people to abolish the government – not given this same emphasis by Ms. Allen?
I think the easiest reading is to treat all of these as an enumeration of the truths to be self-evident, period of no period, and that the powers of the government, along with the right to abolish said government, have been given the proper amount of attention. To act as if these truths have been unevenly weighed, for the purpose of adding weight to the role of government, seems less like a serious analysis and more of a ruse to divert the discussion to pretend the Founders were big-government advocates.