Happy. Fourth.

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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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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."


  1. Brian said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    I can't contribute anything useful to the discussion; all I can think of right now is the idea of emoticons appearing in the Declaration of Independence. But thanks for the pointer to the manuscript; I'm sure I'll enjoy reading it once I've recovered.

  2. Tracy said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

    Because I wanted to see what it looked like anyway, here is the passage with the punctuation removed, and the two "That"s downcased. I don't know what to do with the emoticons.

    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

    It seems to me that emoticons usually modify the written equivalent of single utterances, which I think this is (I don't really know how you would describe chunks of writing). To me emoticons seem like determinatives operating at the sentence level — maybe someone has written something cool about what they are actually doing? Anyway I don't know how how to insert them idiomatically into the middle of things, let alone Jefferson's text. I feel like you could justifiably use a single emoticon, either at the beginning or end.

    I once did an exhaustive analysis of several years of my saved chat transcripts, and the only thing I learned from that was that about 5% of my friends consistently put them at the beginnings of sentences/lines/utterances, and the other 95% of my friends consistently put them at the end. I couldn't decide whether there was anything interesting about that or not (and anyway I made the mistake of telling the people who put them at beginnings that they were doing something unusual, which might have screwed up my ability to do deliberate mad science on them).

  3. Chris C. said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

    I too have a hard time seeing why this might be important.

    On the other hand, if anyone can figure out what the commas in the Second Amendment are supposed to mean, that might really change something.

  4. Jason Merchant said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    I'm with Eric on this: the fact that the following clauses begin with the complementizer "that" makes them clearly subordinate to the initial "truths": they are hypotactic, whether we acknowledge and represent this with a comma, a dash, a semicolon, a period, or nothing at all. Modern eyes would probably find the following more usual: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that X; that Y; that Z; etc." Given the very clear linguistic (if not orthographic) facts, it seems to me to be quite overstating the case to claim that

    "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 ms., p. 3)

    I have a hard time seeing how it affects the interpretation significantly at all–there is simply no way to interpret the following "that" clauses without at least implicitly importing the "truths", elliptically or otherwise. But Allen makes a good case, to my reading, that the period after "happiness" was not intended, and was lacking in all manuscripts.

  5. Bloix said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 10:54 pm

    Chris C. – the commas in the 2d A are easy. From the modern point of view, there are two extra commas:

    "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

    The extra ones are after Militia and after Arms. In each clause, the comma divides the subject from the predicate. This was permitted although not required in the 18th C. The Constitution has a number of other examples:

    "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court,"

    "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them,"

    "The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution"

    etc. etc.

    So to cast the 2d in modern punctuation, you just drop those two commas:

    "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."

  6. DSM said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 11:34 pm

    Allen's intention is to reinterpret the declaration to have a stronger emphasis on community over individualism.

    I believe she might care so strongly because she is interested in ensuring the the phrase "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" be held as equal to the preceding all men deserve life, liberty and happiness bit.

    [EB] Another reason why I'm interested in reading the book. But I'd still like evidence that the errant period has (fairly or not) contributed to the individualist reading.

    If you don't see what all the hooplah is about, then you probably feel that the Declaration already does a swell job in other places of emphasizing the ideas of communal rights over individual ones. For me I think the greatest kink in her armor is how the document states several times that these rights are god-given/natural; no government/group of individuals can give them to you, because you already have them by virtue of birth. That's pretty strong evidence of a individualist interpretation to me.

  7. Lazar said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

    @Chris C.: It reminds me of the seemingly intractable mystery of whether Neil Armstrong said "one small step for man" or "one small step for a man".

  8. Yerushalmi said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 12:39 am

    Of your four sentences, #4 appears to have a different meaning than the others. While the first three sentences seem to present varying degrees of importance among the items the speaker wants, the fourth one is completely different: "That children know love, and that we all celebrate together as a big happy family" is being used to define what the speaker meant in the first sentence by "peace", as opposed to adding two more things to the list.

    [EB] Nice point, and I agree. I assume you also agree with me, though, that this does not help Allen's case.

  9. Brett said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    @Lazar: It's only intractable to those looking to avoid the obvious interpretation: Armstrong meant to say the latter, but he flubbed it—and admitted it. People unhappy about what actually happened have tried to go back and concoct apologetic explanations for how the word "a" was missing from the recording.

  10. Scott said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    Totally agree with Eric's linguistic analysis here, the presence of "that" in subsequent clauses makes their subordination to truths clear. But even if one did not accept this, and thought that there was some punctuation which led to a different interpretation (or if a imagine a version without the subsequent occurrences of "that"), I'm struggling to see why this other interpretation would have significant ramifications.

    Schematically, Allen is arguing that we ought to interpret this as (a) and not (b):

    (a) It is self evident that (p & q & r & s).

    (b) (It is self evident that ( p & q)) & r & s

    [EB] My analysis is that (b) is not a possible reading at all, actually, so we may disagree here. For me, it's (p & q & r & s) or perhaps ((p & q) & r & s), but r & s are definitely in the scope of things that are self-evident.

    I can see are clearly distinct meanings in theory with distinct truth-conditions, etc. But, in practical terms, the difference between the two versions seems very slight. What practical difference is the self-evidentiality of the latter conjuncts supposed to lead to? In interpretation b, the document still does assert they are true even if it doesn't assert that they are self-evident.

  11. Russell said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    Agreed on the point that whether it is a period or comma has little to no substantive effect on the interpretation of the document as a whole.

    However, the fact that all the manuscripts used by now have a period make it a useful stopping point. And let's be honest, that pre-period portion is far more familiar to people than the rest. So it seems reasonable to speculate that without the period, either people would tend to have committed to memory more of that sentence, or (maybe more likely) "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" wouldn't be quite as strong a trope as it is.

    [EB] I'm not sure I buy this, but it certainly isn't unreasonable — and I probably wouldn't have posted about this at all if this had been Allen's claim rather than the "it has an entirely different meaning" claim she actually appears to be making.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    I guess it's good no one told the drafters of this document to Avoid the Passive at all costs, although it's interesting to note that the passive-voice construction "governments are instituted among men" is very definitely Vague About Agency, and quite possibly deliberately so.

  13. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 5, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    When did parsing every piece of punctuation become part of legal interpretation in the U.S.? I know the courts do it now, but were British courts handing down decisions in the 1760s and 1770s that turned on the position of a comma or period?

    The writers of the Declaration were educated men. Presumably John Adams would have known if legal documents and their interpretation turned on comma placement and would have been concerned by misplaced punctuation. Does the fact that there was no hue and cry over typos when the Declaration of Independence was distributed matter?

    Finally, I went to a re-enactment of a reading of the Declaration yesterday, and the re-enactor portraying John Harris said that the original reading was made from a newspaper copy of the Declaration after the paper from Philadelphia arrived in what is now Harrisburg (well after July 2 or July 4, I assume). The re-enactor mentioned the text was read out loud because so many people in the south-central Pennsylvania region were illiterate. If there was a high rate of illiteracy or semi-literacy, are we attributing textual importance to an artifact that was not significant in a culture that still relied heavily on the oral transmission of information?

    [EB] This is an excellent point. If you haven't already read Allen's manuscript, you should — she argues (again, I think quite convincingly) that a lot of the confusion over punctuation had to do with various printers' interpretations of diacritic marks on certain draft copies, Jefferson's in particular, that are clearly meant to be cues or reminders for the reader to add emphasis or pause or whatnot in the reading of the document.

    I came across this discussion of literacy in the colonies, and the implication seems to be that literacy rates were lower in frontier and farming areas, that the literacy rate for women was lower than for men, and that information about the literacy rates of slaves is scant. In addition, the author says the ability to write in the Colonies did not necessarily imply the ability to read, and vice versa:


  14. Eric Baković said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

    A few days after I wrote this post, I tweeted it to Prof. Allen (@DSAllenIAS) to ask for her response or opinion. She wrote back a 7-tweet response (each tweet including an MT of my original tweet). Here are the 7 tweets, with the MTs removed.

    1/7: Great post. Yes, syntax is clear regardless of punctuation but
    2/7: Period makes some people stop reading there
    3/7: This confirmed by teaching experiences
    4/7: Book does refer to some of those experiences & pol's language
    5/7: Book also spends much more time on working of syllogism
    6/7: Basic points are: scholarly standards require accuracy in transcription
    7/7: And (2) many readers need the assistance of accurate punctuation.

    Thanks, @DSAllenIAS. Guess I'm getting a copy of the book.

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