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Boyd (editor of the massive Princeton edition of ) proposed a different theory: “This alteration may possibly have been made by the printer [John Dunlap] rather than at the suggestion of Congress.”Fortunately for my purpose here, this minor mystery is of no consequence.Both “inalienable” and “unalienable” were used throughout the eighteenth century; they were merely variant spellings of the same word.
For it embodies in its text and in its multiplicity of corrections, additions, and deletions all, or almost all, of the Declaration as it was at every stage of its journey from its origin in the parlor of Graff’s home to its emergence in full glory as the official charter as the authenticated charter of liberty of the American people.
For those who wish to understand the political philosophy of the Declaration, the significant part is the famous second paragraph.
According to this approach, legitimate disagreements may occur between subjects and rulers when alienable rights are involved, but no such disputes are justified over the question of inalienable rights.
Government cannot claim any jurisdiction over such rights, because inalienable rights, by their very nature, could never have been transferred to government in the first place.
An eighty-year-old Jefferson disputed this account. He denied that a subcommittee had ever been formed, claiming instead that the entire committee “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught.”A more serious discrepancy between the accounts of Adams and Jefferson pertains to how the Declaration was actually drafted.
In his Adams recalled that the Committee of Five held several meetings, during which an outline of the Declaration was drawn up to serve as a guide for the draftsman.
A man can no more transfer his inalienable rights than he can transfer his moral agency, his ability to reason, and so forth.
This means that inalienable rights could never have been transferred to government in a social contract, so no government can properly claim jurisdiction over them.
(“Unalienable” appears to have been more common.) Far more significant is why Jefferson felt the need to specify rights at all, rather than referring simply to natural rights, inherent rights, and so forth.
Inalienable (or unalienable) rights were regarded as fundamental corollaries of man’s nature, especially his reason and volition, so these rights could never be surrendered or transferred to another person (including a government), even with the agent’s consent.