Rights, “Unalienable” or “Inalienable”?: A Concluding Philological Postscript

[This version has been revised since it was initially posted;  see below]

Since my posting of Bentham’s critique of the “Declaration of Independence” last Thursday, traffic on this blog has increased dramatically. While I appreciate the attention, I suspect that it will be fleeting and that my readership will soon return to the small, but persistent, company of friends of the Enlightenment who have sustained it over the last year and a half. But, before bidding adieu to Bentham and returning to the usual concerns of this blog, I thought I’d post a few final observations on the Declaration’s use of the phrase “unalienable rights.”

While Bentham was rather suspicious of the notion of  unalienable rights, my concern is not with the concept but with the words, the first one in particular. The Declaration clearly says “unalienable,” but I suspect that many of us labor under the impression that the text says “inalienable” (at least I know that I do and, when talking about the Declaration, regularly have to correct myself). While there is no difference (at least that I know of) in the meaning of the two words, I’m curious as to why we (or, at least, I) keep making this slip. Fortunately, our old friend, the Google Ngram, can bring some enlightenment.

Unalienable vs. Inalienable:  A Preliminary Sketch

We can start by noting the simple fact that, starting in 1832, usages of “inalienable” rapidly begin to become more common than “unalienable.”

In and Un

“Inalienable” starts its ascent in the early nineteenth century, peaks in 1862 (I bet that quick-witted readers already suspect why), and then begins a modest descent into the present. The track for “unalienable”, in contrast, falls steadily until around 1880 and then flatlines (this is one case where turning off the smoothing doesn’t produce much of a change).

The Ngram for the bigrams “unalienable rights” and “inalienable rights” more or less tracks that of the two adjectives.

 

Rights In and Un

This led me to wonder how frequently these adjectives are applied to nouns other than “rights.” Fortunately, Google has a tool that lets us find out.

It is simple enough to do a wildcard search with the Ngram by inserting an asterisk after “inalienable” or “unalienable”. The Ngram then will spit out a graph of the most frequent words that follow the two adjectives.  Here’s the one for “unalienable”:

Wildcard Unalienable

 

And here’s the one for “inalienable”:

 

 

Wildcard Inalienable

The results look much more cluttered here than they do on the Ngram Viewer itself, where dragging the cursor over the lines hightlights them, so readers might want to spend a few minutes playing around with this themselves (click here for “unalienable” and here for “inalienable”).

The main point here is that the most frequent use for both “inalienable” and “unalienable” was as a modifier for “right” or “rights” with (if we discard “and” and “in”) “inheritance” and “property” running a distant third and fourth (I suspect that “property” is not being used in the legal sense in most of these cases).  The fact that “inalienable” and “unalienable” are typically used in connection with rights got me to wondering how many of the occurrences were, in fact, quotations from the Declaration of Independence.  When I initially posted this discussion, I thought I’d figured out a way of getting at this, but I have serious doubts as to whether my procedure isolated what I was looking for.  So, until I’ve worked this out to my own satisfaction, it is best to leave this question open.

 

Lincoln’s Role

What, then, explains the fact that after 1860 or so, discussions of the Declaration of Independence have it speak of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights? The answer, as I suspect most readers have already figured out, has to do with Abraham Lincoln.

A quick search of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln turns up 17 occurences of “inalienable,” all in the context of discussions of the Declaration of Independence (and here I should register the caveat that I am not a Lincoln scholar and that I am moving way out of my areas of competence).  While the bulk of them occur during his debates with Stephen Douglas, the most frequently quoted is from a speech delivered in his speech at Lewiston, Illinois of August 17, 1858:

Now if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to his creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all his creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

The only occurrence of “unalienable” that I could find in Lincoln’s works occurs in the report on the Lewiston speech that appeared in the Chicago Press and Tribune of August 21, 1858, an account that (according to the editors of the Collected Works) was picked up by other newspapers.

The reporter for the Press and Tribune rendered the relevant passage of the speech as follows (emphasis mine):

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “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 reporter had every reason to think that Lincoln said “unalienable” — that, after all, was the word that was in the Declaration.  That we, in contrast, tend to recall the Declaration as speaking of “inalienable” rather than “unalienable” rights is but a small testimony to the role Lincoln played in securing a place for the Declaration in our cultural memory.

abraham-lincoln

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to Rights, “Unalienable” or “Inalienable”?: A Concluding Philological Postscript

  1. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    The words we use matter. Persistent Enlightenment has post on the shift from “unalienable” to “inalienable” rights. PE not only tracks the shift in usage through Google ngram, but attempts to understand why Americans have switched moved away from the expression “unalienable rights.”

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