“Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and property in America.”

It may not be the Declaration of Independence, but it sure sounds like the American Dream.

The Founding Fathers associated voting rights with the holding of property, but I don’t think they meant in this way to include everyone residing in the new country…or, indeed, everyone in the world, depending on how one defines “everyone.” They were later right to extend the franchise beyond the land-owning class even though the great continent-grab of the nineteenth century substantially increased the size of that class.

Of course “property” isn’t limited to “land”; and our veneration for “private property,” all the way down to “personal stuff” like the comb on Holden Caulfield’s bureau, makes clear that we treasure the right to own stuff. But listen to some of the political opiners and you’ll hear that we don’t really consider even the right to own small stuff a universal right: the current indignation about drawing the poverty line a little higher in the income scale, for instance, includes a certain amount of resentment that some of the “poor” own “air conditioners and television sets.” And Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan takes the poor into account in its principle of one-tax-per-thing, he says, meaning that the poor can avoid taxes by “shopping in second-hand shops.” Asked about his proposed tax on food and how that fits into the picture, Cain reiterated that nothing second-hand would be taxed, raising the specter of the poor dining on…eeeuuw…second-hand food. Did he have Dumpster-diving in mind, feasting on the scraps of the restaurant meals of the rich, or genuinely pre-eaten food? But I digress.

I am saddened to see “property” replace “the pursuit of happiness” in the American dream. The way my implacable mortgage and the rising collateral costs of home ownership have been biting into my stagnant paycheck is proof, if proof be needed, that they are not interchangeable.

Of course I copied the sentence down because of that misplaced modifier. If the lad wants to believe that all Americans have the right to life, liberty, and property, I’m okay with letting him live in his illusions a little longer, although I will point out that he’s got the Declaration a little wrong. But he’s positioned “in America” to modify “property,” whereas I know he means it to modify “Everyone.” The adjective has to abut its noun or else we find ourselves in situations like this one, where the Japanese purchase twenty years ago of important New York City buildings and now similar Chinese investments on an even larger scale become matters of “right,” not merely capitalistic behavior/predation, and therefore nobody should complain—or worry.

Let’s correct the grammar and the word choice and rededicate ourselves to a dream that can still work: Everyone in America has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (even if that happiness has little to do with property).

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and property in America.”

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