I’m a great admirer of MEP Daniel Hannan, who is certainly among the most eloquent and persuasive voices for freedom in the Western World today. But his July 4th essay for National Review Onlineperpetuated yet again the hoary conservative myth of the American Revolution as non-Revolution, a myth that flatters conservative ideology—but which on both ideological and historical grounds, rings hollow. When Hannan writes that “The men who [fought] believed that they were fighting for their freedoms as Britons,” and, “When they called themselves Patriots…meant that they were British patriots, “ he says what is plainly false.
It is true, of course, that in the years that led up to the Revolution, the Patriot cause was framed in terms of the British constitutional tradition, and that arguments over General Warrants, or trial by jury, or taxation and representation, were framed in terms of violations of British constitutional rights. But when Independence came, the Americans threw off loyalty to the British crown, and with it any reliance on that constitutional bequest, and staked their cause instead on the universal rights of mankind—on those rights with which all people are endowed by “nature and nature’s God.”
In the Declaration, they said they were no longer British. They cannot have simultaneously demanded the rights of Britons, or called themselves British patriots—and, indeed, they did not.
Some people are actually giving prominence to the claim by Prof. Danielle Allen that the period that appears after the word "happiness" in the Declaration of Independence is errant, and that this changes the meaning of the sentence because it shows that the founders thought government had an important role to play...something something something liberalism.
This is, to put it plainly, idiotic. First, the idea that this period is "a typo" imposes anachronistic standards of punctuation on an era that was far less standardized on such matters than our own. One need only look at the spelling and capitalization of the Declaration to realize this. There are actual errors in the document at the Archives, where the engrosser was forced to use a caret and write a word above a sentence. But while the period in question is erroneous by our standards, it was not necessarily an "error" in 1776, a time when gentlemen would often end letters with "Yr. most Obdt: Servt." or something. Jefferson himself idiosyncratically avoided capitalizing the first word of each sentence. Punctuation, capitalization, and spelling rules were just more flexible then.
Second, if one actually reads the sentence in question, its grammatical structure is obvious: it is a list of "that" clauses spelling out the "truths" that the representatives hold to be self evident. The first is that all men are created equal. The next is that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. The next is that these rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The next is that government is instituted in order to secure these rights. One would have to be a very poor grammarian to think that any of these constituted the end of the sentence. In that sense, yes, a period would be out of place. But I know of no reason to think anyone believed that a period, if any, actually signified such. Any reasonable person fluent in English would realize, whether he saw a period there or not, that the sentence did not end at "happiness." There's just no evidence anyone was or could be misled by this alleged error.
Finally, the notion that this "discovery" should change our understanding of the document or its authors is unreasonable. There's no denying the founders thought government was important. Far stronger evidence for this is to be found in the Declaration's list of grievances, which complain about the King's obstructionism with regard to colonial self-rule--dissolving legislatures, for instance, or refusing his assent to laws the most necessary for the public good. But more importantly, the clause in question says government exists "to secure these rights," not to manipulate those rights, create them, expand them, redistribute them, et cetera. This sentence in no way justifies the conclusion that the founders believed in anything like expansive, Progressive-style government. And if this sentence were in any degree unclear, which it isn't, a basic acquaintance with the beliefs of the founders would end any confusion. "I am not a friend to a very energetic government," said Jefferson. "It is always oppressive." The founders well knew--punctuation notwithstanding--that government is a terrible threat to the rights with which we are naturally endowed, and that it must be very carefully limited so as not to oppress people while claiming to do them good.
It takes a great deal of effort to misrepresent the beliefs of the founding fathers, because they spoke so clearly. Trying to get people to argue over punctuation while ignoring the words and their context, is just another instance of that fool's errand.
At less than 200 pages, Sandefur makes a succinct but no less devastating set of arguments that attack the most obnoxious and destructive doctrines stemming mostly from the Progressive Era. Although some conservatives may be uncomfortable with Sandefur’s opinions about the expansive role he ascribes to the 14th Amendment, his argument presents a viable and principled opportunity to restore the individual liberties that Americans have lost over the past century.
This is my personal blog. The opinions expressed here are my own, and in no way represent those of the staff, management, or clients of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Cato Institute, or the McGeorge School of Law.