The National Archives’ text of the Declaration of Independence reads as follows:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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.
Notice that the sentence in bold is incomplete. It’s grammatical only if the preceding period and dashes are omitted and replaced by a comma. In short, the Declaration of Independence says it’s self-evident that Governments exist, in part, to secure our inalienable rights. Notice also the final words quoted above. Government has a positive role: effecting the People’s Safety and Happiness.
In fact, earlier versions of the Declaration of Independence had a comma and not a period. In total, there are about 70 versions of the Declaration, some with commas, some without.
This argument was made in depth by Danielle Allen in Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. “The Declaration of Independence matters because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality.”
The issue is timely because revisionist libertarians want us to believe that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were founded primarily as a reaction against tyrannical government and thus on libertarian principles. In fact, as is well known by historians, the Constitution was written explicitly to counter the failed experiment in small government embodied in the Articles of Confederation (hence the Constitution’s General Welfare clause, for example). Even at the earlier time of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, the founding fathers realized that government has a very positive role to play in effecting the People’s Safety and Happiness. Federalists such as George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton wanted a strong federal government. Members of the early Democratic-Republican Party — including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe — favored a smaller role for government. The battle between small government proponents and big government proponents rages even today.