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Danielle Allen: One Period Could Change the Meaning of the Declaration of Independence

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 15: Ethan Kasnett, an 8th grade student at the Lab School in Washington, DC, views the original constitution. (Brendan Smialowski/GETTY IMAGES)

Danielle Allen is a political theorist at the Institute of Advanced Study and a contributing columnist for The Post. Her research will be the focus of a free conference on the Declaration of Independence titled “Punctuating Happiness, on June 23 at National Archives in Washington.

Danielle Allen writes: For all that we talk about “original” founding documents, when it comes to the Declaration of Independence at least, we’ve had multiple versions since the earliest days of the revolution. The most important difference among these versions appears in the sentence about self-evident truths.

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The manuscripts written out by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; the version voted on by Congress, as attested to in the official minutes recorded by Charles Thomson; and the official poster printed up by John Dunlap at Congress’s request, on July 4 and 5, 1776, record a very long second sentence, reading as follows:

“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.”

This lengthy sentence is a remarkably cogent expression of the theory of revolution that developed in early modern political thought. The people preserve their right to ensure that their rights are secured. When governments fail to secure those rights, the people may alter their government or, if it comes to it, abolish it and start over.

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Yet on July 6, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Towne — who had obtained a copy of the Declaration we know not how — printed an unauthorized version that broke that long sentence into two by placing a period after “pursuit of happiness.” Towne scooped Dunlap, who didn’t get the Declaration into his own paper until July 8. As the first newspaper printing, Towne’s version was circulated extensively and read like this:

“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 content of the governed . . .”

In Towne’s printing, both the requirement that government balance the individual right to pursue happiness with the collective safety and happiness of the people and the accompanying theory of revolution drift out of focus. The period after pursuit of happiness leads us to disconnect the opening premise about individual rights from the argument for the positive value of good government and the all-important conclusion about altering governments that fail us.

[Read the full text here, at The Washington Post]

Last summer, I stood behind a group of high school students at an exhibit about the Declaration. They began reading one of the versions of the text with the period. When they got to “pursuit of happiness,” they lifted their hands in the air, shouted “yes,” and were gone. They got the point about individual rights but not the people’s responsibility to determine principles and organizational forms that achieve their shared safety and happiness.

Six months after Towne printed his version, another printer used Towne’s text as the starting point for an official version. In January 1777, after the Continental Congress scrambled to Baltimore because the British had pressed into Philadelphia, Congress commissioned local printer Mary Katherine Goddard to create 13 copies of the Declaration, one for the official archives of each newly minted state….(read more)

The Washington Post

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5 Comments on “Danielle Allen: One Period Could Change the Meaning of the Declaration of Independence”

  1. Mike says:

    Luckily we have multiple drafts of the Founding Documents in addition to the Federalist Papers which clearly indicate the puncuation was exact, yet which she has probably not read. But I have, because I’m a poltical theorist at Institute for Way Smarter and More Advanced than you to Infinity Studies.

    • The Butcher says:

      Which reminds me – Your executive membership at the Foundation for Enlightenment Restoration Studies has been approved by the board of Directors here at the Pundit Planet Institute, don’t forget to attend our annual meeting in Las Vegas next Spring. Don’t forget to sign in when you get to the conference. We’re holding a suite for you and your staff at the MGM Grand.


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