The libertarian philosophy, in a nutshell, is that our country is built from individuals and the free market and is designed around protecting individual freedoms, especially when it pertains to property. Libertarians often cherry-pick quotes the Founding Fathers as “proof” that their ideology of individualism was written into the country’s beginning. One scholar, however, believes that she has found proof that our first founding document, the Declaration of Independence, has a tiny error. An errant dot has been interpreted as a period and without that dot, the document demonstrates that Thomas Jefferson wanted the government to protect freedoms, not to get out of the way of freedoms, as libertarians would have you believe.
Danielle Allen, a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, believes that the period after “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” was a mistake. It should be a comma. The next word in Jefferson’s draft version is not capitalized, which would indicate to any reader that the preceding punctuation was not a period. It reads, “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
Not only did Jefferson’s draft contain the comma, but so did the version distributed by Congress in 1776. The official transcription, though, has a period, albeit followed by a dash.
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…
The period, though, doesn’t make sense as compared to the rest of the document.
There are numerous sets of truths that are held to be self-evident here, each of them enumerated in a clause beginning with the word “that”. In every case, the list of truths ends with a comma, followed by a new “that” and another set of truths—in every case but for one: after the word “happiness”, we get a period rather than a comma. This seems to violate the rules of parallel structure. It also turns the whole second part of the paragraph into a sentence fragment, lacking a subject. It would not be particularly surprising if Jefferson had violated the rules of parallel structure or engaged in creative and inconsistent use of punctuation; he is known to have read “Tristram Shandy”. But given the other evidence for a comma, the fact that it seems to make more stylistic sense doesn’t hurt.
What would this mean for the governing of our nation? It would clearly mean that the Founders didn’t fear a big government. In fact, they embraced a strong government as being necessary to protect the freedoms that they fought for. In other words, the Founders were liberals.