Independence Day Ethics: Historian Hype, Liberal Bias, And The Great Punctuation Mystery

founding-fathers-declaration-of-independence

First, a little background…

I have often found it depressing that historians so often lack the ethical integrity necessary to do their jobs. If there was any profession in which avoiding bias would seem to be paramount, historical research and analysis would seem to be it, but that just isn’t the case. Because historians are academics and scholars, and because academia has become almost exclusively a hot-house of left-ward ideology for more than half a century, too many historians view their duty as using the past to manipulate the present and future.

My introduction to this came early, when I was a fifth grader suddenly fascinated with the U.S. Presidency as the first national election that I could follow approached. I read various assessments of who the greatest of our past POTUSes were, and there was near consensus, it seemed. Washington and Lincoln, naturally, were “the berries,” and they were joined as “greats” by Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, FDR, and Truman, Democrats all. Teddy Roosevelt was “near great”; Eisenhower was a dud. What a great party this Democratic Party must be! Of course, Jefferson’s racial hypocrisy, Jackson’s lawlessness and persecution of Native Americans, Wilson’s racism and bungling of the peace after World War I and FDR’s complicity in locking loyal Japanese-Americans in prison camps was never mentioned. Over time, I learned that even the most respected American historians were likely to be pursuing partisan agendas. The classic example, of course, was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who carefully and unforgivably culled the facts he deemed worthy of revelation in order to add John Fitzgerald Kennedy to that list of brilliant Democratic Presidents. Was I surprised when a large number of prominent American historians signed a petition opposing the impeachment of President Clinton, a Democrat, thus asserting that a degree of dishonesty and lack of trustworthiness that was sufficient in every state in the union to mark a lawyer as unfit to practice was nonetheless not sufficient cause to remove a President from office?

I was not.

This brings us to the Case of the Missing Comma, brought to us by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., aided and abetted by her left-leaning allies. Allen (who by the purest coincidence has a book out!) claims a major discovery. The iconic sentence in the Declaration of Independence“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.–”—was not intended to end in a period, as all current quotations and reproductions show, and the official transcript produced by the National Archives and Records Administration indicates.  Allen claims that her extensive research indicates that the period at the end of that phrase almost certainly did not appear on the original parchment version of the Declaration, and was mistakenly included in later versions. Just in time for July 4th (when Allen’s publicist calculated that her “Eureka!” would get maximum exposure) Allen explained to the New York Times that the extra period contributes to a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the famous document signed by the Second Continental Congress in 1776.

The “misunderstanding” as she sees it: the period at the end of that famous phrase suggests that Jefferson’s list of self-evident truths ends with the pursuit of happiness, but when it is correctly and accurately changed to a comma,  what comes next is becomes equally important. That would be the vital role that the government (“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”) plays in securing these 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….You lose that connection when the period gets added,” says Allen.

That’s right. Professor Allen is making a bid for progressive immortality by claiming that she’s proved that Tom and the guys always were in favor of big government all along. And don’t think Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, President Obama, the Three Little Maids of the Supreme Court, MSNBC and the Times won’t be making that argument from now on.

Do I believe that this is exactly why she is making this claim, other than to sell her book, that is? I certainly do. Here is why:

1. She can’t prove what was intended at this point, no matter what. The parchment of the original is now almost illegible. The period appears in some official and unofficial early printings of the Declaration,including a news release that Congress commissioned from a Baltimore printer in January 1777 for distribution to the states. It also appears on a copperplate produced in 1823 as an attempt to replicate the original parchment copy. This version is used as the basis for many modern reproductions of the declaration, including the one used by the National Archives. Jefferson’s original, scratched out and heavily edited draft doesn’t have the period or a comma, but a semi-colon, whatever that means. Jefferson’s draft, however, was chopped to pieces before the final was settled and signed. His intended meaning or punctuation does not trump the intent of the signatories. Allen has reviewed 70 versions of the document with and without periods, and her opinion, inevitably biased by her a) desire to have a major historical discovery on her resume rather than a trivial punctuation correction, and b) ideology-driven desire to bolster the legislative agendas of her favorite partisan officials, is that no period was intended. That’s her opinion, and not, I think, a fully objective one.

2. The obvious conclusion is that the Founders didn’t think the distinction between the period and the comma in this instance was important or significant. Among the signers of the Declaration were some of the most detail-oriented, scrupulous, careful, erudite, articulate and brilliant individuals of that and any other age. They knew they were creating the mission statement for a new and experimental kind of government. Does Allen really think that among all of these lawyers, philosophers, scientists, writers, scholars and statesmen a major typo, changing the meaning of the entire document in a material way, could have slipped by unnoticed and uncorrected? It is inconceivable. We should also recall that the rules of punctuation, spelling and capitalization were notoriously relaxed in that era, and often eccentrically interpreted even by the best writers. If there was a typo, those responsible for the document didn’t feel it was material or worth fixing.

3. Which it wasn’t. Here are three versions of the section at issue:

1. 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. (Period)

2. 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. (Comma)

3. 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. (Semi-colon)

In all three versions, the clause “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is set apart from the rest in four ways. First, it follows a naked comma after “created equal;” second, it comes before a dash, making clear that there is an intended sharp division between what follows and the main body of the sequence; third, the beginning of the section on government is capitalized, as in the beginning of a sentence, while the clause listing the inalienable rights is not. Finally, the individual rights are given presumed primacy by being listed first.

Given all of this, the distinction between a comma, a period or a semi-colon in the paragraph is rendered meaningless, which was why the punctuations variations in the versions published at the time didn’t register on any of the Founders as something that needed to be corrected.

4.  Allen’s argument that the removal of the period suggests that the Founders intended for individual rights and the power of government to be “equally important” is only credible if one discards common sense and English composition comprehension. This was a document rejecting oppressive government in favor of individual rights. Even if the Founders believed as Allen suggests, they would be lunatics to pick this document and this moment to assert that a strong government was on an equal footing with human rights. Of course, they didn’t—because they placed the inalienable rights first. Second place is second place, not equal. You can make them equal easily by phrasing the passage this way:

“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, AND that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Jefferson and his colleagues did not compose it this way, because that’s not what they meant, and not what they intended to say.

“We are having a national conversation about the value of government, and it does get connected to our founding documents,” says Allen. “We should get right what’s in them.” By all means, let’s fix the typos. Let us also not misconstrue trivial changes to provide bogus ammunition for those who would warp the Founders’ vision in pursuit of  partisan objectives.

_______________________________

Sources: New York Times; History

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at jamproethics@verizon.net.

9 thoughts on “Independence Day Ethics: Historian Hype, Liberal Bias, And The Great Punctuation Mystery

  1. Who is her publisher? They should ashamed. And I guess that the standards at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton have been significantly lowered since the days of Einstein.

    Yes, I am a liberal and a Democrat (oh, horrors!), but I value truth and integrity much higher than I value party loyalty. I find the lack of objectivity throughout modern media to be a significant evil in our world today. I guess there has always been some element of it, but I challenge anyone to find objectivity out there. It’s probably out there somewhere.

    Where are Scully and Mulder when you need them?

      • Maintaining systemic integrity is very important. A person could consistently believe that sports leagues should allow dopingand support the sanctions against Lance Armstrong for his doping against the rules. This is because allowing doping via the absence of a rule against it does not threaten the integrity of athletics, but looking the other way while athletes dope in violation of the rules only breeds contempt for the rules.

  2. Even if she’s correct on the punctuation part, it’s clear that the signatories intended full license for people to boot out any government they didn’t like.

    More to point: the Declaration of Independence does NOT carry the force of law. It is, as you note, essentially a mission statement (coached in a nice little Foxtrot Yankee to King George).

    Many people point to the Declaration inappropriately, apparently mistaking it for the Constitution. The Constitution DOES carry the force of law – or, at least would, if politicians hadn’t learned to ignore that law with impunity.

    Ms. Allen’s argument may be of interest to academics, but primarily as a curiosity. In terms of shaping government, it’s the abuse of the Constitution that represents a threat – not a possible misreading of the Declaration.

  3. I would be curious if her book goes into the origin of “life,liberty,” etc. (I say etc. because, as I recall, one version said property, one version included “furniture.”

    In any event, this phrase had been used many times (by Jefferson himself in drafting the Virginia Constituion?) and I suspect none of those references promoted strong government.

    -Jut

  4. For what it’s worth, no matter the value of commas in other English writing, for a long time it has been wifely recognised as bad practice to have commas in legal documents at all, precisely because they can be confused with full stops and because they can be altered to semi-colons (whether deliberately or inadvertently), so altering the meaning. I do not know whether the good practice was already current then, but in any case that document always struck me as not a legal work at all but rather a propaganda instrument for local consumption and to encourage outside allies.

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