In anticipation of the 4th of July weekend, I was compelled to read this very interesting (July 1 draft) manuscript: "Punctuating Happiness", by UPS Foundation Professor Danielle S. Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. A political theorist friend's Facebook post led me both to the article and to this front-page NYT piece on it: "If Only Thomas Jefferson Could Settle the Issue: A Period is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence", by Jennifer Schuessler (July 2 online, July 3 print).
Professor Allen makes a thorough and compelling case for her claim that the second sentence of the actual Declaration of Independence parchment has a comma after the well-known phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" — and not a period, as the most frequently reproduced version of the document, an engraving made by printer William J. Stone in 1823, would lead one to believe. The matter can't be resolved via visual inspection; the parchment is extremely faded, and Allen presents some evidence — suggestive but not conclusive, in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there — that it may have already been sufficiently faded at the time of Stone's engraving. Allen thus "advocate[s] for the use of hyper-spectral imaging to re-visit the question of what is on the parchment".
For everyone's reference, here is the relevant "second sentence" of the Declaration of Independence, as transcribed on pp. 2-3 of Allen's manuscript, with the "errant period" highlighted in green.
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 foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
I won't walk you all through Allen's argument; the manuscript is very accessible, and I would encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the subject to read and enjoy it as thoroughly as I have. Suffice it to say that I have absolutely no reason to doubt Allen's conclusion, especially seeing as she is the author of a recent book that engages in a very close reading of the Declaration of Independence (Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality) and, well, I'm not. I haven't even read her book, but I am now highly motivated to do so (kudos, Facebook and NYT marketing!) — though in large part because I find myself disagreeing with Allen's linguistic claim for why we should care about this matter (p. 3, emphasis added):
In its complete form, this sentence explains the relationship between individual rights and the value of government as a tool by which we collectively secure safety and happiness; moreover, it identifies this relationship as a matter of self-evident truth. When bi-sected with a period, however, the sentence designates as self-evident truths only the existence of individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The question of how this sentence is punctuated, in other words, dramatically affects how we interpret the most important expression of American ideals written to date.
Allen's typographical claim that the parchment has a comma and not a period is thoroughly and convincingly argued in the manuscript; the linguistic claim, by contrast, is simply taken to be … well, self-evident. To my mind, there are two kinds of evidence that Allen could have (but didn't) marshall in favor of the linguistic claim:
- Examples of arguments put forth by politicians, Supreme Court justices, or the like in favor of an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence that explicitly claim that the relevant portions of the document after "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" should not be taken as self-evident truths, where such arguments explicitly point to the errant period in the document as evidence. (Perhaps there are such examples in Allen's book, which is a big part of why I am now interested in reading it.)
- Traditional linguistic arguments. Here's where I would respectfully suggest to Professor Allen, and to any non-linguists making essentially linguistic claims such as the one above, to consult with linguists. In this particular case, I think the linguistic evidence would show that the choice between a comma and a period is a stylistic one with no particular logical consequence; the fact that the next two clauses begin with the complementizer that makes them clearly dependent on what precedes, and thus prime candidates for further examples of self-evident truths.
In support of the claim that I just made, consider the following four examples:
- What I want is that the world know peace, that children know love, and that we all celebrate together as a big happy family.
- What I want is that the world know peace. That children know love. And that we all celebrate together as a big happy family.
- What I want is that the world know peace, that children know love. And that we all celebrate together as a big happy family.
- What I want is that the world know peace. That children know love, and that we all celebrate together as a big happy family.
I submit that these all express the same logical content, though they clearly differ stylistically. Especially for those who feel strongly that "sentences should not begin with and", the second and third examples may seem off. Some may judge that the third and fourth examples group different things together in such as way as to convey a greater closeness between the items that are separated by a comma. (This could in fact be construed as an argument for the period in Stone's engraving; Allen argues that the portion up to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is the first of two premises in the syllogism that this second sentence expresses; a period would arguably make that grouping more clear.) But I don't think anyone would claim that any of the periods in the second, third, or fourth examples indicate that the items that follow are not among the things that I want. (Or would you? Please feel free to comment.)
In other words, I am struggling to see all this as something other than a matter of typographical (and documentary) interest. Don't get me wrong, I'm a complete dork about such things and find them very interesting in their own right; unlike some commenters on the NYT piece, like Dorothea of Halliday, I don't think this is "much ado about pretty much nothing." But I do agree with Stewart of Silver Spring, MD (though I would tone down the snark) that the comma-vs.-period issue "has no bearing on the meaning or interpretation of the document […] the meaning of the parallel structure is quite clear, and would be even if Jefferson had used emoticons rather than punctuation marks."