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Whose Inalienable Rights? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

January 6, 2012

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.”

Of course, Jefferson didn’t write that, not exactly like that anyway. He first used the word, inalienable. See:

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
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook


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?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2012 5:37 pm

    Since you are interested in the Declaration of the Independence, I recommend Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence which talks about the “sausage-making” process that lead to the final version of the Declaration. She explicitly addresses some of the issues you raise.

    In particular, as you may know, Jefferson’s original draft including the following paragraph:

    he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

    That paragraph did not make it into the final draft. Maier’s book has the story.

  2. January 6, 2012 5:38 pm

    And yes, Jefferson wrote “it’s” (with apostrophe) in his handwritten draft. See here.

  3. January 6, 2012 7:08 pm

    where’s “their Creator” in this text?


    Note that the by the rules of Japanese grammar, the same 天 that 生ずる-ed the 人 also 附与-ed the 通義.

  4. January 6, 2012 8:02 pm

    By the way, you may have had trouble reading Fukuzawa’s text — as a 19th century Japanese writer, he felt free to use kanji outside the standardized 当用漢字 and 常用漢字 character lists, such as 億 and 轍. He also freely used Chinese expressions in the 19th century literary Japanese style. That may be why you failed to recognize why the initial participle also modifies the second part of the sentence. Probably the majority of contemporary Japanese cannot accurately read this sentence — an indication just how deep the post-War language reform ordered by the Monbusho went.

    In 2009, I saw the special exhibit on Fukuzawa at the Tokyo National Museum in honor of the 150th anniversary of his founding Keio University. I was struck by the irony that this incredible giant of Japanese culture (whose face is on the 10,000 Yen note!) was now partially inaccessible to Japanese because of intellectual movements he helped set into motion.

  5. January 6, 2012 8:03 pm

    I haven’t read Pauline Maier’s book, but because of your recommendation here, I will. Thank you.

  6. January 6, 2012 8:09 pm

    先生、ありがとう。 あなたは素晴らしいです。 Curiously, the phrase that rolls off my tongue after all these years more easily than any other phrase is this: 私はすべてを忘れてしまった。

    That may be why you failed to recognize why the initial participle also modifies the second part of the sentence. Probably the majority of contemporary Japanese cannot accurately read this sentence

    That makes me feel so much better! (My knowledge of kanji is very rusty these days too.) I can hardly imagine the sort of fluency that Japanese scholars have to have and that creative types surely do exhibit.

    this incredible giant of Japanese culture (whose face is on the 10,000 Yen note!) was now partially inaccessible to Japanese because of intellectual movements he helped set into motion.

    What an honor for you to see and to appreciate Fukuzawa’s legacy first hand, and how amazing that one might transcend and influence so profoundly one’s own culture.

  7. January 7, 2012 9:58 pm

    I do think Maier’s book is worth reading; here is a review that summarizes her argument.

    The other book about the Declaration of Independence that I like is Garry Wills’s Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Wills’s book is quite different than Maier’s book, though; Wills book challenges the view that Jefferson’s Declaration was based on Locke’s theories; and is a deep examination of the philosophical background of the Declaration.

    Maier’s book is not philosophical: in contrast, it is a political book about how the Declaration was written (and its historical precedents, which are all but forgotten now) and how it has been viewed in later decades and centuries. Both are good, but I think you’d especially like Maier’s book.

  8. January 8, 2012 12:14 am

    Let me say a little more about Maier’s book. I think you will like it because it talks about subjects that you are interested in: Writing. Editing. Reading.

    I grew up learning a type of Promethean myth about Jefferson: he created the United States with a single movement of his pen when he wrote the Declaration. (Alternative version: Madison (and maybe Hamilton) created the United States when he wrote the Constitution.

    You know the old line. Whenever there is a conference of distinguished thinkers, someone will say “there has not been so much genius in one room since Jefferson sat by himself.” We laugh, and it is exaggerated, but we still believe in the myth.

    Maier comes along and takes Jefferson down a peg. He was not the great originator that he imagine, and he was not as good a writer as the myth has it either. The Declaration improved with editing by others (even if parts of it, such as the anti-slavery paragraph, were taken out or watered down.) It is a lesson for contrary to our belief in auteur theory.

    Maier also talks about how people have read Jefferson (or read into Jefferson), which your post also ably addresses.

  9. January 8, 2012 9:21 am

    Thanks for the link to R. B. Bernstein’s review, and thank you for your further comments. I’ve quoted Bernstein in my next post, the one on “relativism.”

    Maier’s book sounds a little like Frank Donovan’s (relatively old, 1968) Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration: the Story behind the Declaration of Independence. Donovan does a good job of contextualizing what went into the drafts and the drafting of the Declaration and who did and didn’t have their fingers and hands and ideas in the process. If I recall, his history also gets at the fact that there were also propaganda motivations for the document — a rallying to arms of colonists and allies against the monarchy. At any rate, despite Donovan’s main title, the subtitle and the book deconstructs the notion that Jefferson authored the Declaration.

    I’m looking forward to Maier’s book, and to Wills’.


  1. Whose Relativism? Mine, Yours, Theirs? « BLT

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