Punctuating Happiness

« previous post | next post »

Today at the National Archives: "Punctuating Happiness":

In advance of its traditional Fourth of July celebration, the National Archives, in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Study, will host a free conference on the Declaration of Independence titled “Punctuating Happiness" […]

Inspired by the work of Danielle Allen, […] the conference will explore the National Archives’ work in preserving the original Declaration of Independence, the diversity of the document’s textual tradition, how this diversity affects historical research, and how it is taught in schools. […]

Ms. Allen’s research raises questions about the transcription of the Declaration taken from the 1823 Stone engraving. Specifically, that the Stone engraving uses a period after “pursuit of happiness,” whereas the 1776 manuscripts by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Secretary for the Continental Congress Charles Thomson use semicolons or commas. She argues that the question of whether a period belongs there affects whether we read a sentence with three self-evident truths, or with five. And it affects whether we take the self-evident truths to concern primarily individual rights or rather to concern the positive value of government as a tool for securing individual rights.

The central argument is laid out in Danielle Allen's paper "Punctuating Happiness", and focuses on the Declaration's second sentence, which she presents in this form:

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.

She analyzes the content as follows:

The sentence forms a syllogism. The first three “that” clauses constitute the first premise;  the fourth “that” clause is the second premise; and the fifth “that” clause is the conclusion following from the premises. Thus, the sentence moves from premises about individual rights and the role of consent-based government in securing them to a conclusion about the right to revolution. The sentence is a good example of the convergence of eighteenth century standards of logic and rhetoric.  

She notes that

[…] in 1823 when William Stone produced an engraving from the signed parchment, an engraving that would eventually become the most commonly reproduced text of the Declaration, he bisected the sentence after “pursuit of happiness” […]

and argues that

In its complete form, this sentence explains the relationship between individual rights and the value of government as a tool by which we, the people, collectively secure safety and happiness; moreover, it identifies this relationship as a matter of self-evident truth. When interrupted with a period, however, the sentence designates as a matter of self-evident truth only the existence of human equality, as derived from our 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. 

This is a fascinating argument, but one that I find grammatically puzzling.

The re-punctuated version, as Allen presents it, is

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. 

The added period, dash, and capital T in

happiness. — That to

certainly does separate the fourth that-clause more strongly from the first three. But it's still a that-clause, and there's no way to interpret it except one of a series of enumerated truths asserted to be self-evident.

The same applies to the added dash and capital T in

governed, — That

Thus the revised punctuation and capitalization seems to me simply to highlight the tripartite logical structure that Allen describes.

Or am I missing something?

[Update — a record of the whole Danielle Allen Seminar is available at Crooked Timber. I don't see any discussion of the simple grammatical point raised here, though.]



  1. Mara K said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 10:40 am

    I do know that American public schools got in the habit of stopping at that added period, so I and millions of other students memorized the first part and not the rest. And I can guess that today's Republican Party would be very different if that comma were retained, because the period provides them with an excuse to ignore the idea that government protects one's right to life, liberty, and property/happiness.

  2. Donald Clarke said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 11:10 am

    You are not missing anything. Allen's interpretation is as untenable to a law professor (me) as it is to a linguist (you). This is a classic example of someone finding something interesting and then making a lot more out of it than it merits.

  3. Brom said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 11:14 am

    I can see Ms. Allen's point, to a certain extent. I agree that the punctuation does seem to affect how many truths are designated as "self-evident." By separating the fourth and fifth that-clauses from the first three, the punctuation suggests that only the first three are self-evident, and the other two are arguable propositions derived from them; when all five propositions are clearly punctuated as one sentence, however, that sentence describes all five as self-evident.

    If all five propositions are self-evident, they need no proof, and thus Ms. Allen's description of them as forming a syllogism is flawed.

    [(myl) This is unfair to Dr. Allen's argument — a syllogism or other logical argument as a whole might be evident or obscure; and the premises and conclusion of such an argument are certainly in any case all "truths", if the premises are true and the logic is valid. Her reading, as I understand it, is that that the five truths that "we hold … to be self-evident" form a sort of abstract argument about the goals of government and the rights of the governed, while the subsequent discussion applies this argument to the particular case of Britain and its American colonies.]

    It remains flawed if only the first three are regarded as self-evident, since then the second premise (i.e., the fourth proposition) lacks any support. I can see why she thinks that the five propositions together look like a syllogism, but I don't think you can say that they really are.

    The document's true syllogism is larger than just those five propositions. All five of the propositions make up the first premise. The second premise is that the King of Great Britain has, in fact, "become destructive of those ends," and it includes the list detailing the "history of repeated injuries and usurpations" which illustrate that fact. The concluding premise is that the 13 American colonies "are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States … Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown."

    Incidentally, regardless of punctuation, I think it's still possible to read all five that-clauses as self-evident truths. In fact, as a matter of logic, I think you have to. But I would agree that the version of the punctuation found on the inscription, which introduces the dashes, does introduce some potential for ambiguity.

  4. Ken Miner said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

    This discussion highlights a general problem, rarely talked about, for textualist or strict constructionist approaches to founding documents. For example Burt Neuborne of the ACLU (& NYU Law School) thinks the Bill of Rights has important structure; it is “meticulously organized” and there are reasons for the order of the Amendments and for the order of the clauses in them. He gets standing ovations for these analyses, but when you read about the rather tumultuous way in which the Bill of Rights ended up with the text it has, it's rather hard to see it as "meticulously organized". By whom? one might ask.

    Strict constructionists, it seems to me, have to assume some sort of idealized origin for these documents. Perhaps so do the discussants here. I guess this goes to Donald Clarke's comment.

  5. Donald Clarke said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    I don't understand why it should be necessary to assume an idealized origin for the Declaration of Independence (whatever that means) to read it as a list of truths held to be self-evident. The simplest way to read it is as a list divided into sublists. I realize that what's obvious to one person won't necessarily be obvious to others, but if it's not a list of truths held to be self-evident, why is there a "That" in front of "to secure these rights…"? To what does it refer? If it were not one of the self-evident truths, there would be no need for "That" at the beginning of the sentence. Far from assuming it has an idealized origin (again, I don't really know what Ken means by that), I assume it was written by human beings whose intended meaning is far more likely to be evident from the entire structure of the passage than from some possible accidents of 18th-century punctuation.

  6. David L said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    It occurred to me a while ago, when I was reading a profile of Ted Cruz in the New Yorker, that people who believe in strict constructionism in Constitutional matters have a lot in common with fundamental Christians. Both believe in the unerring wisdom of a founding document, if only we can parse it correctly, and both believe that if we can only live perfectly accordingly to the strictures of those documents, society will return to the Edenic times that humanity enjoyed in the past, before modernity ruined everything.

  7. David L said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    *fundamentalist, I meant.

  8. Donald Clarke said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

    But then of course it turns out that their strict constructionism, like fundamentalists' fundamentalism, is selective and omits stuff they don't like – which shows that it's not about strict construction after all; it's just about personal policy preferences. But none of this is really relevant to the current discussion, since even strict constructionists could disagree here on what meaning a strict construction yields.

  9. BZ said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    I find the comma after self-evident to be more problematic. Usually semicolons (and certainly periods) are stronger markers of separation than commas. On this premise "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" is a separate clause from everything else. Of course, as was mentioned, the "that"s leave the intended meaning pretty unambiguous.

  10. Ken Miner said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

    Looks as if I was not clear. OK, how did we get the text of the Declaration? Jefferson wrote the first draft. John Adams made some changes. Then Benjamin Franklin made some changes. Finally, Congress made some changes. According to Wikipedia, the document now in the National Archives is "popularly regarded as the official document". Is it identical with the Dunlap Broadside, whose text was supposedly ratified by Congress? Apparently not in every copy. Wikipedia mentions that the Dunlap Broadside was printed in great haste and "bits of punctuation move around from one copy to another"…)

    It seems to me that strict constructionists idealize away from such actual, sometimes chaotic, origins, which lie essentially in something like committee patchwork, and treat the documents as if every jot and tittle were of consequence. Thus I am agreeing with Donald Clarke's original comment about "making a lot more out of it than it merits."

  11. John Swindle said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 7:45 am

    There's a complete lack of emoticons.

  12. Bloix said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 9:10 am

    BZ- at least one Jefferson draft has colons.

    But IMHO opinion it's a mistake to infer too much from 18th c punctuation. Comma usage in particular seems to have changed a fair amount.

  13. Brom said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 11:24 am

    I may have been a bit harsh in saying that Dr. Allen's syllogism argument was flawed. I did say that the five that-clauses look like a syllogism, but I wasn't prepared to say that you actually needed the first four to prove the fifth one. They all had to be treated as given in order for the Declaration's larger syllogism to function. And while I still think that's true, I can see that the first four that-clauses nevertheless support the fifth one. In fact, one could say that the self-evident correctness of the first four propositions (what Dr. Allen calls the first and second premises) is what makes the fifth proposition also self-evidently correct.

  14. Anthony said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

    As BZ says, I'd have put a colon after "self-evident", too, though I don't know much about late-18th-century punctuation use.

    The argument that we should reinterpret a document because of a transcription error made 47 years later is pretty unconvincing. If you want to argue some different interpretation based on the comma instead of colon after self-evident, you might have a case.

RSS feed for comments on this post