July 04, 2014

Government and pursuit of happiness — #ThomasJefferson vs #DavidBarton

For addition of a period, the meaning has changed.
Has a misplaced period in one of America's founding documents led to a misunderstanding of Thomas Jefferson and his thoughts on the role of government?

Very possibly so, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, affiliated with Princeton University.

Here's how one of the most iconic passages in the Declaration of Independence normally reads, with the punctuation mark in question included:
“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.”
See that period right after "the pursuit of Happiness"? That's what's at question and, according to Allen, not part of Jefferson's original hand.

OK, we take it out. So, what does that do?

According to another story, this:
Allen ... argues that Thomas Jefferson intended to emphasize the second part of this passage — the role of the government — equally with the individual rights in the first part. Instead, with the period in place, there's an implied hierarchy. So you can begin to see how one little punctuation mark's presence or absence could become the subject of heated debate among those who have strong opinions about the role of government as it concerns individual liberty.

In fact, she's written a book on the issue. And, has some strong arguments. Typologically, given that a comma appears after the first "that" clause, just before the second em-dash, and that other historians of the period think that if there's any punctuation mark after "pursuit of Happiness," it's a comma, not a period, she's not alone.

Besides, sentences don't begin with "That."

As for non-wingnut objections to the idea?

First, it doesn't matter that Jefferson was one of five people on a committee drafting the Declaration of Independence. What matters is he was the one writing it.

There's a reason that word is boldfaced.

The Declaration is NOT a "modern" document like an Obama State of the Union address. It's a manuscript in the narrow etypmological version. It's something written by hand, and Thomas Jefferson didn't pass the pen to Ben Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, or Robert Livingston, his fellow members of the Committee of Five.

Beyond that, as the top link notes, beyond my form-critical note about sentences not beginning with "That," this is a textual criticism issue. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, about which I recently read a great critical book about its manuscript history, comes to mind.

So, too, do Plato, Homer, the Bible, etc. This is a text-critical issue. And, with a graduate divinity degree and a class in textual criticism, I'm familiar with issues like this.

Given that the National Archives "engrossed" or Matlack copy is illegible, it's hard to appeal to that. Per the Times piece, and per common text-critical issues, it's very possible that the Stone 1823 copperplate added a period working off, to analogize with the Greek New Testament, the "Textus Receptus" at hand.

Also per the story, Allen has other historians who agree, including others that have a background in textual criticism and manuscript issues.

That all said, we do have parallels in the study of other ancient manuscripts to what would have happened had Jefferson handed the quill pen to somebody else. Paul, at the end of one of his letters, says, "Look at the big marks I make with my own hand," implying everything else had been dictated to a scribe. (Sidebar: It makes one wonder how much of the claim Paul was a Pharisee of academic training actually is true; given that it's only in Acts, not in Philippians, itself of doubtful authenticity to a few scholars, this almost certainly isn't true, the academic part. But then, was he a Pharisee at all? I'll stop, before digressing too much.) Or, in a manuscript of the Gospels, we'll see how a second "hand" edits what (he thinks) is a mistake in the original.

But, we have none of that here. Nobody's ever suggested that the version at the Archives is based on multiple "hands" being on the document Matlack used.

To wit:
The period does not appear in Jefferson’s so-called original rough draft (held in the Library of Congress), or in the broadside that Congress ordered from the Philadelphia printer John Dunlap on July 4. It also does not appear in the version that was copied into Congress’s official records, known as its “corrected journal,” in mid-July.
So, there you go. 

These issues of textual criticism are well illustrated by the history of composition of the Gettyburg Address, delineated very well in this new book.

Now, back to, using biblical studies analogies, "higher criticism" of the passage with a comma, not a period. And thus, sometimes my "wasted" professional degree is not wasted.

Does it make the language flow that much differently? I say yes. I think she's still stretching her argument somewhat, but not fully.

The Jefferson of 1776 was certainly not the states rightist of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions a full two decades later. He would surely, still, have a belief in a somewhat limited government, but, we do know that he feared a strong central government because he thought it would overly boost the power of manufacturing interests — and, indirectly, financiers.

So, at a minimum, this undercuts the Jefferson as portrayed by libertarian wingnuts who want to move him halfway to Ayn Rand, or Religious Right wingnuts like David Barton who want to make him into a small-government zealot so as to undercut his "wall of separation" comments on church-state separation.

As for claims that Jefferson is misinterpreted, as Barton likes to state? Wikipedia shows that it's more complex than that. Our history shows that our founding fathers made a number of other compromises, though they held ideals in mind. Note slavery. Setting aside the inconsistent, then hardening, Jefferson, we know Ben Franklin's involvement in abolition, yet his signing off on the Constitution.

Some people interested in history may say, but, "It's the 'official' copy of the Declaration of Independence! Surely Jefferson would have corrected it."

Well, this gets back to how much difference the comma vs. period has. More precisely, it gets back to the perceived degree of difference back then, not today.

At the first Census, in 1790, we were a widely scattered nation of just 4 million people with no faster means of communication than horseback or sailing vessel. And, even in Britain, let alone America, government remained fairly small relative to the populace. So much the more, in a more open, more loosely-run nation here.

So, the difference wasn't nearly as much in a pre-electronic communication world of 4 million vs. a wired, big government world of 315 million.

A second reason Thomas Jefferson didn't run to correct Matlack? That's per John Adams famous mis-guesstimate about July 2 being "the day," not July 4, as Adams expected future Americans, if such a country survived, would be celebrating the day we declared our independence, not the day Congress approved the document stating why we had declared that independence. A month later, as long as Matlack didn't refer to George II instead of George III, nobody was that concerned. By the time of the 1823 copperplate, I'm pretty sure Adams, Jefferson and Charles Carroll were the only three Signers alive and nobody thought to check.

Third, given the military events of the next 18 months in the middle colonies, the Declarational Founders had little time to worry about what was surely very low on their priorities list. They were trying to escape capture by Gen. Howe, squabbling over who should have precedence in the mission to Versailles, trying to figure out how to pay for that French weaponry and much more.

In other words, to riff from the Declaration to the Constitution, and to kick one of David Barton's fellow travelers, Constitutional originalist Nino Scalia, right in the nuts, nobody was performing biblolatry on the Declaration of Independence between 1776 and 1823.

And, what you saw in the last five paragraphs above, if you include the snarky last one, was the equivalent of "historical criticism" or "higher criticism" in biblical studies, properly connecting with textual criticism.

And I do appreciate some comment on Facebook which led me to the last one-third of this post, to spell out these issues.

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