A curious story appears on the front page of today’s New York Times, about the Declaration of Independence. Danielle Allen, a scholar with whom I’m acquainted who works at the Institute for Advanced Study here in Princeton, has just published a book titled Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. I haven’t seen Prof. Allen’s book yet, but the story in the Times concerns something else: whether our usual copies of the Declaration of Independence contain a typo—an erroneously placed period, to be exact—and whether its presence or absence makes a difference.
I am as interested in precise historical accuracy as the next person—maybe more than most—so this story really caught my eye, and made me check the many copies of the Declaration I have ready to hand, in print or otherwise. Prof. Allen has raised a question about this, the most famous passage in the Declaration:
The portion I’ve underlined is what concerns her. Does that period after “Happiness” belong there? What you see above is what the National Archives publish as their transcription of the handwritten parchment copy on display in Washington. But Professor Allen is convinced that the period is (in the Times reporter’s words) an “errant spot of ink.”
I have seen the Declaration published at least three ways, first as seen above with both a period and a dash. Second, with a period and no dash:
Third, with a dash and no period:
. . . and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights . . .
That is how the Bicentennial Commission, chaired in the 1980s by then-Chief Justice Warren Burger, printed the Declaration when it was published together with the Constitution in a pocket-sized pamphlet. Prof. Allen would like to see it printed this way everywhere, and frankly I like it that way too.
But now the story goes a bit sideways. Why is Prof. Allen so intent on getting this precisely right? Is she just a punctilious punctuator? No:
The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments—“instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”—in securing those rights.
“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
This is evidently what brought the matter front-page attention in the Times. But it makes no difference, so far as the meaning of the Declaration is concerned. In other places, including collections of Jefferson’s writings based on careful scholarship, I have seen this passage punctuated with a semicolon (which is how I’d have done it if I’d been the editor in 1776), and even with a colon. Any of them—period, dash, both together (a peculiar construction but not uncommon in the eighteenth century), colon, semicolon, or even comma—could have been used without having the slightest impact on the meaning.
For the fact is that, with the phrase “Pursuit of Happiness” (they were capital capitalizers in those days too—I suspect German influence), the list of “unalienable rights” has indeed come to an end. The next thought—whether in a new phrase, clause, or sentence—begins “That to secure these Rights,” and that is a distinct shift from end to means. The rights belong to every human being simply by virtue of our having been created equal and endowed with them by our Creator. Giving them practical realization will take the creation of a government, possessing just powers to which we consent. First end, then means. To quote Hillary Clinton, “What difference at this point does it make” whether the Continental Congress gave us a period, a dash, or both? One doesn’t “lose” a “connection,” one makes a particular kind of connection, and the punctuation has no substantive effect.
Prof. Allen’s interest in this rather trivial question is seconded by others:
Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen’s research say she has raised a serious question.
“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”
No, Prof. Rakove, it’s no help at all. The relation is of ends to means, and the latter are always “subordinate” to the former. How we punctuate the thought makes not the slightest difference in clarifying anything. People first, government after. That is the logic of the Declaration, punctuate it as you will, and there is no way to change that priority. If the objective is to place the government’s power on the same plane as the people’s unalienable rights, erasing a period isn’t going to help.