Princeton Professor Makes Dubious Declaration
Professor Danielle Allen, at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, has proposed a closer reading of the Declaration of Independence in order to prove that the country was intended to be socialist all along.
Yes, that’s her thesis, and this woman is on the Board of Trustees and has a MacArthur 'Genius' Award. On the other hand, she’s a professor of sociology, a field with a penchant for ideology.
The Declaration of Independence is a dramatic statement to the world explaining why we broke away from England. But it’s the Constitution – not the Declaration – that defines how the government would be organized. Micro-parsing the Declaration for advice on governance would seem to be an exercise in minutiae. But that’s what the professor wants us to do.
Here’s the key passage:
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 punctuation after the phrase “and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson seemed to put a semicolon there. Some think he put a period and/or a dash. Professor Allen thinks there was a dash only and that a speck of ink landed in the empty space, and subsequently people thought – incorrectly – that the speck was a period. This led, in her dramatic verdict, to a "serious misunderstanding."
In fact, there are many versions of the Declaration. People at that time were casual about spelling and punctuation. Just for the sake of discussion, let’s stipulate that the professor is right, and there’s no period. There’s a long dash. So what? (In most cases, the next word is usually That, and it’s capitalized, suggesting a brand-new sentence. The professor wants to consider it more of a run-on sentence.)
The radical thing is this phrase: “certain unalienable rights...life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These had not been considered rights before. The Declaration notes that governments are here to secure these rights. This was probably a somewhat new idea also. The implication is that the government is on the side of the people, not a monarch. This might be a clever dig at King George more than anything else, as George would probably assume that the government was instituted to keep his magnificent self ensconced in luxurious estates.
The professor’s point, however, is that if there is no period, then government’s role is one of those truths we hold to be self-evident. This seems very wispy.
The original language was going to be “the pursuit of property.“ But some framers thought this too money-minded. So they changed it to the more generic “pursuit of happiness.” Now, if the professor is angling to make “pursuit of happiness” mean something like “the pursuit of government largesse,” then you know this is getting silly.
Everyone agrees that the Founding Fathers were intent on making the government as limited as possible, leaving each person free to pursue his own version of happiness. This professor thinks that giving some extra prestige to government, by manipulating the punctuation, increases the socialist possibilities.
For sure, that’s exactly what Thomas Jefferson was thinking about.
QED: the professor gives good sophistry.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.