Errant period may alter reading of Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, who died without getting to write any Yelp reviews

Thomas Jefferson, who died without getting to write any Yelp reviews

Tomorrow, Americans everywhere will shoot fireworks into the air to frighten away the British and ensure six more weeks of freedom. All we have to do to preserve our way of life is make sure there aren’t any kings around, since freedom is a natural state. That truth is self-evident, along with our equality and our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of property happiness. But what if a bunch of other stuff were self-evident, too? That’s the implication of a recent investigation by Princeton professor Danielle Allen, who believes that a period was mistakenly added to our transcript of the Declaration of Independence. You know what that means: it’s time for another Close Reading.

Here are the opening lines of the Declaration with the period in question bracketed:

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.

As you can see, guessing from context whether that period should be there is not easy. American English usage has changed a lot over the last 240 years; for example, we no longer use capital letters for decoration. We also use colons for lists, and we separate items that contain commas in said lists with semicolons, and we don’t sprinkle em dashes wherever we damn well please. I do, I guess, but it’s frowned upon. All of these modern fashions—or, more precisely, the absence thereof from the Declaration—make it hard to determine whether that period should be there or not.

Here’s my subjective version of that paragraph with no period and modernized usage:

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.

So what’s the difference? For one thing, we’ve added to the list of what Jefferson and the other Founders considered postulates. In the version with the period, only equality and the three basic rights are presented as self-evident truths. By implication, that makes the parts about governments as institutions of men and the rights of those men to abolish and reconstitute said governments into arguments derived from the self-evident truths.

In addition to explaining why every sentence begins with “that,” the no-period version shifts those claims from derived arguments to foundational truths. Jefferson doesn’t think that people have the right to determine their own governments because they have the right to life, liberty and happiness; he thinks they have the right to determine their own governments and they have the right to l., l. and the p. of h. When you take out the period, these ideas join equality and the inalienable rights as claims that need no defense. They are declared.

In a historical context, that reading makes more sense. Our high school teachers tended to overemphasize the impact of Enlightenment political philosophy on the American Revolution, but the Declaration of Independence remains an ideological document. It’s a Dear George note to England, but it’s also a flat denial of the divine right of kings. Echoing Locke and Hobbes, Jefferson declares that a monarchial system of government is not prescribed by God. It’s acquiesced-to by the people, and the people of America were not going to acquiesce anymore.

In the modern age, these claims about government are accepted without argument. No one suggests that America should have a king because God would only let his queen give birth to just rulers. In 1776, however, ideas about the consent of the governed were hot stuff. You couldn’t prove them. You could cite them in Two Treatises of Government, but that was a little like citing Bertrand Russell on pacifism today. Such ideas are not so much arguments as value systems. They cannot be proven so much as espoused. You just have to write a letter to everybody, pack your muskets, and wait.

6 Comments

  1. Actually not so much. Punctuation didn’t really mean as much in the 18th century as Allen’s scholarly linkbait suggests. Readers of the Declaration of Independence wouldn’t have relied on standardized usage of punctuation. That’s really a 20th-century thing.

    Commas and periods were really all over the place in the 18th century. One of the more fascinating examples is that Jefferson’s manuscript of the Declaration of Independence included many more commas than the final version. If you realize that the Declaration was meant to be read aloud, the commas are only in there as verbal cues.

  2. The American government is nevertheless rather haphazard about supporting the right of the people to “alter, abolish and institute new” government. Definitely against it for Russian speakers on the periphery of Putin’s dominion. For it in Kosovo, but only after Kosovars provoke genocide against themselves. Agnostic for Catalonia and Scotland, lands officially still under the thumb of monarchies, of all things. Against it for Texas and Vermont and, a while back, the South. I’d love to see more consistency someday.

  3. I’ve never read the dublaration of indumapenpants.
    I never went to school.
    Well I did, but most of my energy was spent avoiding roving gangs of violent people.
    I never graduated.

  4. Does errant period equal after ’65?”

    There is an issue, after ’65.

    Something,
    terrible,
    happened after ’65.

  5. The Declaration of Independence was not written for future application to other nations. The colonists had their hands full with their own fledgling country.

  6. Some genuinely excellent blog posts on this website, thank you for contribution. “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” by E. B. White.

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