One pe­riod makes two Dec­la­ra­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY DANIELLE ALLEN The writer 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 Ju

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.

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.

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. 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. God­dard served as Bal­ti­more’s post­mistress and lead­ing news­pa­per woman. She had al­ready printed a ver­sion of the Dec­la­ra­tion in her news­pa­per on July 10 that fol­lowed Towne’s print­ing. She did this again when she printed an au­tho­rized Dec­la­ra­tion for each state cap­i­tal.

Thus, by Jan­uary 1777, the in­fant coun­try had four of­fi­cial ver­sions of its Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. There was the text by Thom­son, Congress’s sec­re­tary, in Congress’s of­fi­cial min­utes book. There was Dun­lap’s print­ing for Congress. There was the parch­ment done by cal­lig­ra­pher Ti­mothy Mat­lack that mem­bers of Congress signed, now a na­tional trea­sure held by the Na­tional Ar­chives. And there were the 13 copies that God­dard printed.

Two of th­ese — the Thom­son ver­sion and the Dun­lap ver­sion — have a list of self-ev­i­dent truths set out as a sin­gle sen­tence end­ing in “their safety and hap­pi­ness,” and con­vey­ing the the­ory of revo­lu­tion. One of th­ese, God­dard’s print­ing, has a pe­riod af­ter “pur­suit of hap­pi­ness,” giv­ing us a rather dif­fer­ent sec­ond sen­tence.

But what about the parch­ment? What did Mat­lack write? We ac­tu­ally don’t know just how he punc­tu­ated that sec­ond sen­tence. The text is poorly leg­i­ble at that spot. There is a mark af­ter “pur­suit of hap­pi­ness,” but with­out some mirac­u­lous dis­cov­ery from tech­nolo­gies such as hy­per-spec­tral imag­ing, we can’t say for cer­tain whether it’s a pe­riod or a comma.

In short, we have a di­verse tex­tual tra­di­tion for the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, and we’ve had it since July 6, 1776, when Towne’s unau­tho­rized news­pa­per print­ing spread far and wide.

The Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence is a re­quired text in the Com­mon Core, and all ver­sions of the SAT, start­ing in 2016, will en­gage with it in some way. Just how should we teach this text, given its di­verse tra­di­tion?


A por­tion of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence as pub­lished by Benjamin Towne in the Penn­syl­va­nia Evening Post on July 6, 1776.


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