J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Our Declarations

Yet another new book of Revolutionary history that’s been getting a lot of press lately is Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

And by “a lot of press” I mean that in one week Allen’s work was featured on the front page of the New York Times and reviewed in the Times Book Review.

That review wasn’t entirely laudatory. Steven B. Smith wrote, “This book makes three large claims about the Declaration of Independence, one that is profoundly true, another that is debatable, and a third, I would say, that is false.” In arguing for the falsehood of the last proposition, however, Smith claimed that if Thomas Jefferson’s colleagues had retained his attack on the slave trade (not on slavery), “they would have rendered impossible later misrepresentations of the Declaration as expressing the economic self­interest of the slave owners.” Is that really a misrepresentation?

As for the news article, that concerned one mark of punctuation in the Declaration’s first part. Is there a period after the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? If so, would that elevate the incomplete clause ending there above the other incomplete clauses that follow? Or should all those phrases describing self-evident truths be treated as parallel, growing and building upon themselves in the way of eighteenth-century rhetoric:
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.
As Joseph Adelman wrote in a blog post responding to the Times article, putting so much weight on a flyspeck period in the Declaration misses some important points.

First, what we all picture as the Declaration—the handsomely handwritten sheet signed by all those Continental Congress delegates—was not the original approved for release on 4 July 1776. Second, punctuation was quite variable in the eighteenth century, with different printers dotting and dashing texts differently. So does that period really matter? Has anyone actually based an argument about the Declaration on the presence or absence of that particular mark?

As Adelman made clear, he took issue with the way the Times had framed Allen’s work, not with her paper on the questionable period or her book. In fact, Allen appears not to be making a historical argument so much as making a philosophical one; her background is in social science, and she’s offering “a reading” of the Declaration that might have shaped and might serve our society, not necessarily the reading(s) of the genteel white men of 1776 who eventually signed that document.


J. L. Bell said...

John Adams was definitely a big fan of “happiness” in the spring of 1776, as shown by his “Thoughts on Government” essay—look how many times he uses the word there. As with Jefferson’s “self-evident” rhetoric, Adams was echoing what many people around him claimed, and using those echoes to suggest that the point was obvious.

Allen is correct that Jefferson left out George Mason’s property rights in the Declaration’s big three phrase, moving away from Mason’s more common phrasing. That made the Declaration less of an expression of economic self-interest and more abstract, which might have been helpful in framing the American cause both locally and abroad.

I think Allen is particularly interested in finding the universal in the document given that she’s a woman of some African ancestry—i.e., just the sort of person the Continental Congress did not have in mind when they wrote about equality and rights in 1776. But her argument might be that Adams’s contribution didn’t fully flower until years later as people read the Declaration’s words in new contexts.

There’s a lot of irony in Adams's emphasis on happiness instead of property given (a) his Puritan cultural background; (b) his often grumpy personality; and (c) his belief in preserving some privileges for people with more property.

As for nominating George Washington to be commander-in-chief, the only person to give Adams credit for that was Adams. Others, including Adams himself at times, recalled that Thomas Johnson of Maryland proposed Washington as general. And it was a unanimous choice and thus a group decision (though Adams preferred to recall that he had to argue against great odds, as usual).

Chaucerian said...

I think I'm missing something here. Dr. Allen seems to feel (I gather from her paper to which you link) that "to secure these rights" refers to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But those are only some of the _several_ rights which are inalienably given to men: "among" doesn't limit or prioritize any particular ones. It would be different if the Declaration read "supreme among these rights," but it doesn't.

So it appears to me that securing "these rights" refers to the whole shebang of them, not just the few specifically mentioned. Even the idea that happiness is "substituted for" Lockean property doesn't make sense to me: it might be substituted in a list of examples, but both of those rights -- and others not mentioned -- are included in the category of "inalienable."

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, like a good lawyer Jefferson included the phrase “among these” to signal that the list which followed was not all-inclusive. However, by listing certain rights and not others, he was implicitly prioritizing, wasn’t he? Not excluding any rights he might later wish to claim, but putting forward some as particularly important or pertinent.

I think Allen is emphasizing that implication, and the further supposed implication that the first set before the period was more important than the rest, in her study. But since the Declaration is a statement of principles and ideals but not law, and since there don’t seem to be significant examples of people “misreading” the document based on those implications, I’m not sure how much real-world weight her argument carries.