Whose Inalienable Rights? Mine, Yours, Theirs?
I am fascinated by the reception, adaptation, and translation of The Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson penned in English. Of particular interest is what might be read as the first sentence of the second paragraph,
“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.”
The first official and printed versions corrected the word to unalienable, like this:
History is recent enough and sure enough that Jefferson himself drafted this Declaration. He did sign it, as we all can see.
What’s uncertain, nonetheless, is what his authorial intention really was. What, for example, did he intend by putting “Creator” on an open letter to the Monarchy that would establish so independently the new Democracy? Did he really intend so publicly to mix government and God, as if the citizens of the one rather ironically depended on the rightful endowments of the Other? This is a question for the author, and it seems to be Jefferson’s own question. Look at these quotations of Jefferson from the history section of The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (announced here):
Maybe the author changed his mind and would have written the Declaration differently, excising the Creator from it, later in life. Or maybe Jefferson really mean something other than and likely more than linking Church and State.
Then there’s the question about “all Men.” Who might “all” include? And what about “Men”? Was the man Paul Jennings created equal with all Men? Was Jennings endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable (or unalienable) rights?
As you can see on this cover of the book, A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, Paul Jennings was not ever an African-American although he is a man, and he is black. He was a slave of the family of a white man, the American President James Madison. In this book, as Elizabeth Dowling Taylor quotes him (on page 7), Jennings speaks of encountering both Madison and Jefferson in close quarters together. Did they so notice him? Here’s how Dowling Taylor recounts it:
(I’m reading her book after watching her on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. If you’re interested — and this is an aside — you can watch the video here:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Elizabeth Dowling Taylor|
As we all know, Madison owned this man Jennings. But Jefferson owned somebody else, not a man: Sally Hemings. And the early rumor was that the two had two children together, one named James Madison Hemings, who grew up to be a man, just not a white man endowed with “all Men” as having equal creation or equal inalienable (or unalienable) rights. But no woman at the time, it seems, was included in “all Men” either.
Thus, one of the earliest appropriations of the Declaration of Independence was by women and by men, white and black. Well, it wasn’t that early in American history. It was in 1848 that a few women drafted The Declaration of Sentiments, fashioned after Jefferson’s declaration, and a few women and men signed it. They wrote that “all men and women are created equal,” and four of them were Frederick Douglass, Amy Post, Catharine Sebbins, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Here’s from a page from the USA Library of Congress:
There’s much history here worth remembering today.
And yet there are so many, many more histories of interpreting and reinterpreting the text, the author, his intentions, and the intentions of readers now. Below is a sampling:
“We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] selfevident, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienables,” -perhaps Jefferson’s real original, a draft of the 28th of June 1776.
Then out of the far East, here is Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Japanese translation of 1866 (and where’s “their Creator” in this text?)
Then, in the USA, from the previous century, there are these:
“All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else.” —H. L. Mencken’s “The Declaration of Independence in American,” 1921
“We think that all people are created the same and that God wants every one of us to be free and happy.” –The Declaration of Independence Translated for Kids, 2000
“As a result, we reaffirm the following to be self evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” —A Modern American Declaration of Liberty, 1999
Now, for our 21st century, there are these:
“Everyone can see that the following things are true: That all men are created equal; All people are created with equal rights; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; God made them with rights that cannot be taken away;” –The NEW MILLENNIUM Declaration of Independence Line by Line, by “Mr. Peel’s 7th Grade Social Studies Class,” 2003
“We think it’s pretty obvious that God created every person equal, and he gave each person specific unchanging rights which should never be trampled upon. . .”–The Declaration of Independence for Dummies, Part I, 2003
Here are re-writes that get at blood rights of a Civil War and at Civil Rights for African Americans.
“. . . a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men [black and white] are created equal.” —Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” 1863
“And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men [of any color] are created equal . . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963
And here is another re-write, but one that would deny rights because of race (the American Nazi translator’s attempt to make Adolf Hitler’s hatred of Jewish women and men sound like something Jefferson might pen):
“He is always the same Jew. That so obvious a fact is not recognized by the average head-clerk in a German government department, or by an officer in the police administration, is also a self-evident and natural fact.” —James Murphy’s translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, 1942
The following is one that was quoted in a nation where I grew up, (rather ironcially) when America was fighting “North Vietnam”:
“Hỡi đồng bào cả nước, Tất cả mọi người [each and every one, all people] đều sinh ra có quyền bình đẳng. Tạo hoá cho họ những quyền không ai có thể xâm phạm được;” —Hồ Chí Minh’s Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 1945
And see how these sound to you, especially if you’re a native speaker and a fluent reader of the following languages:
“Nous tenons pour évidentes pour elles-mêmes les vérités suivantes : tous les hommes sont créés égaux ; ils sont doués par le Créateur de certains droits inaliénables;” –French (contemporary)
“Wir halten diese Wahrheiten für ausgemacht, daß alle Menschen gleich erschaffen worden, daß sie von ihrem Schöpfer mit gewissen unveräusserlichen Rechten begabt worden,” –German 1776
“Folgende Wahrheiten erachten wir als selbstverständlich: daß alle Menschen gleich geschaffen sind; daß sie von ihrem Schöpfer mit gewissen unveräußerlichen Rechten ausgestattet sind;” –German 1950
“Noi consideriamo come verità evidenti in se medesime che tutti gli uomini sono stati creati uguali; che han ricevuti dal loro Creatore certi diritti inalienabili;”–Italian 1776
“Noi riteniamo che le seguenti verità siano di per sé stesse evidenti, che tutti gli uomini sono stati creati uguali, che essi sono stati dotati dal loro Creatore di alcuni Diritti inalienabili,” –Italian 1961
“Noi riteniamo che le seguenti verità siano di per se stesse evidenti; che tutti gli uomini sono stati creati uguali, che essi sono dotati dal loro creatore di alcuni Diritti inalienabili,” –Italian (contemporary)
“Kita berpegang kepada kebenaran yang nyata ini, bahawa semua manusia diciptakan sama tarafnya, bahawa mereka dikurniakan oleh Pencipta mereka hak-hak tertentu yang tidak boleh dipisahkan;” –Malaysian, 2002
“Nós sustentamos estas verdades como auto evidentes: que todos os homens nascem iguais e que são dotados pelo Criador de certos direitos inalienáveis,” –Portugese (contemporary)
“Nosotros creemos ser evidente en sí mismo, que todos los hombres nacen iguales y dotados por su Criador de ciertos derechos inagenables:” — Spanish 1821
“Sostenemos como evidentes estas verdades: que todos los hombres son creados iguales; que son dotados por su Creador de ciertos derechos inalienables;” — Spanish (contemporary)
and here’s more, more in Japanese and Hebrew and Polish and Russian.
All men and women are created equal, so we would declare. Whose are these Inalienable Rights? Mine, Yours, Theirs?