July 4, 2014


Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong? (ABBY OHLHEISER, 7/03/14, The Wire)

Here's some fun news for the Fourth of July: America might be reading an important passage of the Declaration of Independence all wrong. A scholar's argument that an authoritative transcription of the Declaration contains a period that isn't actually in the original document has convinced the National Archives to re-examine their presentation of the document. That's according to a well-timed New York Times story on the controversy, which could change how we read the passage beginning "We hold these truths to be self-evident." 

First, let's pinpoint what's in question here. The official transcription from the National Archives reads (emphasis ours): 

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.

See that period? According to Princeton professor Danielle Allen, it's not actually in the original document. If she's right, then the individual rights of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" would share a sentence with what follows: 

-- 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.

Allen, speaking to the Times, argues that Thomas Jefferson intended to emphasize the second part of this passage -- the role of the government -- equally with the individual rights in the first part. Instead, with the period in place, there's an implied hierarchy. So you can begin to see how one little punctuation mark's presence or absence could become the subject of heated debate among those who have strong opinions about the role of government as it concerns individual liberty.

The period doesn't matter; the that's have already done the work.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

*that (followed by the ends of government--Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness)

*that (followed by the means of government--consent)

*that (followed by the remedy when government becomes non-consensual--a new consensual government)

Means are, to some degree, always inferior to ends, but note that Jefferson also makes consensual government an end in itself.  As, indeed,it can't help but be, given that Liberty is an end.

Posted by at July 4, 2014 7:43 AM

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