04 July 2014

A Slightly Less Lockean Independence Day?

Go here to read a short piece from the New York Times with a report of some very interesting textual analysis of the Declaration of Independence. The official version of the Declaration maintained by the National Archives reads 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 ... .
Note the period after "Happiness" and before "That to secure these rights ... ."

Not so fast, claims text-scholar Danielle Allen, there was no period after "Happiness" in the original. I'll leave you to read the NYT account for how and when Allen believes the extra "." entered  the text. And I'll leave it to others to decide if she's correct in her reconstruction of the original original.

But, one might ask, what difference would it make were the period not present in the beginning? Here's where John Locke's political theory comes to play. Locke is famous for the political theory (not actual history) that the rights to life, liberty, and property were pre-political and that people had a similar pre-political right to defend those rights by necessary force on an individual basis. I characterized these as primary rights and secondary rights of rectification in my Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition published in the Campbell University Law Review (download here).

Later--again in theory, Locke fully realized nothing like this actually happened--people contracted away the individual right to rectify violation of their primary rights to a civil government that would protect them collectively. In other words, civil government is not a "natural" or primary institution but an "artificial" or secondary one. For a post about a serious article on the subject go here.

A Declaration with a period following Jefferson's triad of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness would be consistent with the Lockean account of civil government I described above. But Locke's contractarian view of civil government is widely criticized by conservatives (distinguished from libertarians). See a couple of my posts on the subject here and here. These conservatives hold that civil government is every bit as fundamental as individuals and their rights. While individuals, families, associations, society, and civil government are distinct and independent, they are each equally ordained as part of this present age (some thoughts here) and each is fundamentally legitimate.

A period-less Declaration would be more (but certainly not entirely) consistent with a conservative view of the legitimacy of civil government. In other words, "Governments among men" are equal in status to the individuals whose rights they secure. Without a period, the legitimacy of civil government is among those self-evident truths and not merely a means to the end of securing them.


  1. Thanks Scott. This very helpful.

  2. I understand the distinction between government as an equally fundamental right with life, liberty etc. I don't understand how the period changes what the document says about whether govt. is a right. The document has the govt. separated by '--' on both sides as an explanatory clause for the purpose of government. Changing the period would not change Jefferson's sentiment that government is a means to securing the ends of individual rights.

  3. Check "State As Robber" for some elaboration of my view of legitimacy of civil government: http://elizabethstokerbruenig.com/2014/07/03/state-as-robber/

    Civil government exists to secure rights but not exclusively so, the current Leviathan notwithstanding.