In a recent New York Times article, Jennifer Schuessler discusses whether or not a period – the punctuation mark – actually appears in the parchment original of the Declaration of Independence after “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Schuessler quotes Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., who says that the period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Also, Allen says that the addition of the period severs the logical connection intended by Thomas Jefferson to the next sentence, which focuses on the essential role of government as a tool for protecting those rights.
Allen could not be more mistaken, and Schuessler and the Times should be ashamed for propagating this lunacy. Everyone here is completely ignoring that those rights are not the only ones mentioned within that very sentence – they are simply listed as prominent examples of the countless “certain unalienable Rights” with which people “are all endowed by their Creator”. That’s why it says, after stating that fact, that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are “AMONG THESE”…”certain unalienable Rights” (emphasis mine). These specific rights are simply listed – obviously – as being the most important in the founders’ view of the infinite number of rights retained by man.
This notion of unlimited individual rights was actually codified within the U.S. Constitution as well, in the 9th Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Just as the Bill of Rights did not list ALL of our individual rights, neither does the Declaration. Yes, our “unalienable Rights” are “certain” – but that does not mean that they are limited only to those listed.
Also, Allen is completely off-base when she argues that the existence of that period severs the connection to the next line about the importance of government. Yes, of course government is necessary as a tool for protecting our rights; as James Madison famously quipped: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But the necessity of government does not invalidate the source of its powers – “the consent of the governed”. Nor should it cause us to lose sight of why the founders insisted on strictly limiting the federal government to a few specifically enumerated powers: because government is evil.
The best definition of government ever given came from Thomas Paine: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Government cannot function without money, and those funds come from confiscating the personal property of citizens. This is evil – by definition – and must therefore be limited to only those “necessary” functions, which are clearly spelled out in the Constitution as enumerated powers.
Whether the mysterious period is errant or purposeful is irrelevant; the founders were very clear in their purpose: individual rights are infinite, and government is limited. Not the other way around.
— written on 8 July 2014