Freedom means equality. Period.

Posted: July 05, 2014

Today, July Fourth, many Americans will read the Declaration of Independence, thinking they know what it means.

But what if a stray period - or a period that is not a period - changed, or strengthened, what we thought we knew?

Historians are calling it "the Battle of the Period."

Danielle Allen of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University wonders. She is author of, among other books, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which came out in June. There, she looks at a very famous passage:

"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, -"

Not to interrupt, but see that period after Happiness? It's in the official transcript of the Declaration, produced in July 1776 by Timothy Matlack of Philadelphia, on parchment, for the most famous signatures in our history.

But it's not in all contemporaneous drafts of the passage, and Allen wonders whether it was an error by Matlack. What if Thomas Jefferson did not intend a period there, but wanted the sentence to keep going? What if that period isn't there? What if it was a Matlack blot or drip? Take it out, and you'd have:

"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, - "

The difference is subtle but striking. Now, "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men" is squarely in the series of thats - it's in the list of truths "we hold to be self-evident." To us, it's obvious - and central! - that government is necessary to make sure everyone has the same rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Government is no regrettable but necessary evil. It's obviously necessary and vital.

Now, you could (kind of) read it that way even with the period. But here's why punctuation is so darned necessary. With the period, the entire psychological impact of the Government part changes. It's now outside that full stop after Happiness. It's now an adjunct, a caboose to the locomotive. A following thought, instead of a directly connected idea, part of the flowing whole.

Allen has been talking about this for a few years. "I have a lot of allies," she says by phone. "Among the historians I've shown this to, I haven't met anyone who disagrees with me - except for the National Archives, who are looking into it."

In her book, she says the Declaration carefully balances freedom with equality, treats the two as coequals, to be tended and maintained with equal vigilance and care. We Americans talk about freedom all the time. For reasons understandable, given our mottled history, we talk about equality much more guardedly.

"Equality is the harder concept," says Allen, "because it's very demanding. We have to reach beyond our most selfish interests to take equality seriously. As this shows, it is the basis of the bond we form as citizens. We need to restore our capacity to talk about equality."

Look at that period. If it isn't there, it's so much clearer not only that we are equal, but also that government's job is to secure our equal, inalienable rights. (Again, Allen and many other political philosophers think that's what the Declaration says anyway - but this way, it's even stronger.)

It gets better, in Allen's view. After the comma after governed, - above, the next clauses say that whenever government "becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." If government doesn't secure our equal rights, junk it and make a new one. All in one long Enlightenment sentence. The Founders "had much greater clarity about the value of government, and the importance of the egalitarian bond among citizens," Allen says. "It's not government that's the problem. It's bad government."

With a document so precious - one of the few such documents also considered a work of literary art - any new light, any dot or dash, any nuance added or taken away, is of great moment. It makes you think about what you are and what you believe. Which is what Thomas Jefferson and coauthors - and Danielle Allen and colleagues - wanted and want. Today is a good day to reread it.


In Dialogue

"When in the course of human events. ..." Read the text of the Declaration of Independence. A15.


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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