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The original draft of the Declaration of Independence (BlackPast.org)...has the following:

...that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people...

Which is about slavery, and how the King is inciting slaves to fight their masters. It's pretty easy, in context, to know what the general meaning of this passage is. But I am flummoxed about the specific construction, "might want no fact of distinguished die."

I know what it means, but... what does it mean? Clearly some of the words are being used in a way that we no longer use them, and the whole structure doesn't jive with modern grammar practices.

Any 18th C. language experts able to shed some light?

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    Die might refer to dice, something with six sides (maybe the "assemblage of horror" has six facets). It might also refer to dye (as in coloring). – GoldenGremlin Jul 4 '16 at 19:20
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    Silenus - Your answer to this effect, just disappeared. I think it was, in fact, the right one. – Adam Michael Wood Jul 4 '16 at 19:21
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    I deleted it because I didn't like the passage I quoted from that site. I'll undelete it and substantially edit it to include my own (more transparent) interpretation. – GoldenGremlin Jul 4 '16 at 19:23
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    Great. As soon as i re-read the passage with "facet" and "di[c]e," the whole thing made perfect sense. – Adam Michael Wood Jul 4 '16 at 19:24
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    @Silenus: Apparently the dye spelling was more common in earlier texts, but the full OED cites Jefferson himself using this spelling (1787: T. Jefferson Writings (1859) II. 123 The workman..brought me..the medal in gold, twenty-three in copper, and the dye), so I doubt coloured dye is directly relevant. – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '16 at 19:51
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I believe that the phrase “might want no fact of distinguished die” is confusing because we automatically interpret "die" as a verb. I think the passage is correctly interpreted as involving a noun, perhaps the singular of "dice".

dice

NOUN (plural same)

A small cube with each side having a different number of spots on it, ranging from one to six, thrown and used in gambling and other games involving chance. See also die.

The Jefferson passage in larger context reads:

Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he [King of England] has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or 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

Under the dice interpretation, the confusing sentence

"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"

means something like

"And in order to make this assemblage of horrors complete (like a six-sided die), the king is now exciting people to rebel."

This interpretation is especially easy to access if we assume that "fact" is a misspelling of "facet" or "face". But even with "fact", the interpretation is still accessible given that a die might be thought of metaphorically as displaying six "facts".

The dice interpretation is mentioned at this site.

Unfortunately, it is unclear why Jefferson uses "distinguished" to modify "die," if "die" really does mean "dice." Perhaps the presence of "distinguished" points to an alternate interpretation (see below).


"Die" might also refer to "dye" (as in coloring) or "die" (as in a type of stamping/cutting implement). Both seem more amenable to the modifier "distinguished".

The presence of "distinguished" seems to strongly suggest the stamping/cutting interpretation given by @agc, especially in light of unambiguous phrases like "distinct die" observed by @StoneyB in his comment to that answer.

On the cutting/stamping interpretation, "wanting of the fact of distinguished die" means "lacking officialness", that is, "lacking the stamp or mark that indicates that something (for example, currency) is official". When the king excited people to rebel, the assemblage of horrors no longer "lacked officialness," that is, the horrors became officially endorsed by the king.


Regarding the king who "prostituted his negative"; I assume this means that the king over-exercised his veto power.

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  • I just found this before coming back and finding your answer. Fascinating, and completely different than I thought. – Adam Michael Wood Jul 4 '16 at 19:18
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    The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (2012) helpfully paraphrases "want no distinguished dye" as "lack no equally reprehensible element" – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '16 at 19:56
  • @FumbleFingers, nice find! This is, in essence, the dice interpretation. Both say that the king's atrocities were made "complete" in some sense, when he excited people to rebel. – GoldenGremlin Jul 4 '16 at 19:59
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    @Silenus: Considering the shambolic circumstances surrounding "the right of the people to keep and bear arms", I think there's something to be said for drawing a veil over all such antiquated texts. On the other hand, if we wait long enough perhaps "people of colour" will start making a case for the idea that Jefferson was (reverentially?!) referencing their skin colour! :) – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '16 at 20:08
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"that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die,"

"Die" here is a noun:

Die noun (plural dies)

2 A device for cutting or moulding metal into a particular shape.

Example sentences

In the sealing module, seal grids can be snapped in and out of the sealing-grid die to change the shape of the package seal.

It's fairly easy to grind metal out of a die, but putting it back in presents a real problem.

--OED

"Die" here is also a metonym:

metonymy

n. A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of Washington for the United States government or of the sword for military power.

-- American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition

Read "of distinguished die" as "of distinguished imprint" or "of distinguished stamp", as in what is stamped out by a die, or perhaps the King's metaphorical bootheel; i.e. the additionally horrific fact was the historical impression stamped by a King's cruel actions: after the King vetoed American attempts at passing legislation restraining or prohibiting slavery, he offered slaves freedom in exchange for warring against those same now openly rebellious anti-slavery legislators. (Calling what amounts to a Royal war-crime "a fact of distinguished die" is Jeffersonian bitter irony.)

(It's complicated, especially given the source, and the next hundred years.)

So why would Jefferson prefer the metonym die instead of the more obvious "distinguished stamp" instead? A few guesses...

  1. "Distinguished stamp" makes Americans sound like weaklings who get stepped on.
  2. "Distinguished imprint" is too flattering, not bitter enough.
  3. The metonym "die" may be more work, but it suggests the action of printing, making the King just another publisher, a rival publisher.
  4. Read aloud, "die" sounds like "dye", which prior to the later Industrial Revolution, was very expensive stuff, so that to wear certain shades of vivid blues, reds, (reds being favored by the British), or purples, loudly indicated one was Royal, Noble, or wealthy. So there's a 2nd meaning here of distinguished pigment, which sharply contrasts a list of acts unworthy of nobility.
  5. Guesses 3+4 makes it for double meaning, both of them apt, except it works against the Legislative Style the founders strove for, where even ironic ambiguity might tend to dilute that style's power. (Perhaps then other founders were displeased with this trope.)

Elocution tip, (a bit over the top):

that this assEMBLage of horrors might want NO fact of distinguished die,"

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    Exactly. The image is drawn from the stamp which evidenced payment of tax, as in the Stamp Act; compare this, from Burke, A Treatise on the Law of Copyright, 1842: "The publication of newspapers is now regulated by the 6 & 7 W.4. c. 76. The principal features of that statue are, […] The giving of a distinct die or mark to each newspaper. The filing of the declaration at the stamp office ... " [my emphasis] The "die" leaves no doubt that it is an official act (fact). – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 4 '16 at 19:58
  • FumbleFingers notes (but does not cite), a dye spelling floating around, I like that too, as it could imply Royal Purple, at the time a very "distinguished dye", assuming George III went for purple. I'd now suppose therefore that TJ liked this pun, but correctly settled for the 'die' spelling as more appropriate for such a serious declaration. Maybe the other delegates were half as annoyed by this purple prose as its actual matter. – agc Jul 4 '16 at 20:17

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