Mystery at the Archives
- By Ronald Goldfarb
- August 6, 2014
Could punctuation have altered the Declaration of Independence?
At least a million people a year make their way to the National Archives in Washington, DC, to see the Declaration of Independence. One visitor, Professor Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, wondered about the original copies of the document. After two years of careful research, she argues “that the period after ‘the pursuit of happiness’” — shown in an 1823 engraving — “does not appear on the 1776 parchment original.”
Scholars are arguing whether the meaning of a questionable period in the “We hold these truths to be self-evident” section of the Declaration makes a substantive difference in the meaning of the words that follow. If there is no period, then the words following what is deemed by the founders to be “self-evident” — “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — also were self-evident to the Founding Fathers.
Those later words concern the role of government (made much of recently by Tea Party followers and others), which is based on “the consent of the governed,” the Declaration adds. If a period is added, ambiguity follows about the meaning of those later words.
Punctuation is the equivalent of road signs and is more important to assuring clear understandings than many people understand. The rules and conventions of punctuation, correctly applied, make a critical difference in the meaning of sentences in the Declaration of Independence and all other documents profound or mundane.
A comma, I point out to students at judicial writing conferences, can totally change the meaning of a sentence:
The prisoner said the judge is a crook.
The prisoner, said the judge, is a crook.
See what I mean? Using another rule of punctuation, quote marks in the second example, would make the difference even clearer.
“The prisoner,” said the judge, “is a crook.”
Same words exactly, but different punctuation.
Punctuation can affect matters of life and death. A Maryland statute stated that capital punishment applied “If the defendant committed the murder while committing or attempting to commit robbery, arson, or rape or sexual offense in the first degree.”
At a trial, a defendant was found guilty of second-degree rape. The judge ruled that the words “in the first degree” applied to both rape and sexual offenses. Were there a comma after the word rape, “in the first degree” would have only applied to “sexual offense,” and not to “rape.”
Since there was no legislative history to guide the judge about the intent of the law, he based his decision about the effect of the comma on directions found in books of grammar. The defendant’s life was saved.
In my book with James Raymond, Clear Understandings: A Guide to Legal Writing, we point out other examples of the importance of punctuation, such as the will that distributed a deceased’s fortune into different shares depending on the meaning of the testator’s use of semi-colons.
Consequences of punctuation get constitutional in the Second Amendment, which we believe was interpreted wrongly by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Heller majority opinion. There, the commas confuse the already confusing sequence of phrases. But proper construction of the language suggests that if a militia no longer exists or is no longer necessary to the security of a free state, there is no need to guarantee its right to bear arms for that purpose.
Our government has long since ceased to rely on citizen soldiers ready to be mustered in times of need and to bring their own personal weapons to the fray. The condition precedent no longer applies; therefore, what follows in the Second Amendment, in effect, self-destructs. Because bad grammar could not govern interpretation, the justices were able to decide the case by following their political predilections.
Whether it is the Second Amendment or the Declaration of Independence, or any other document, one thing is clear: Punctuation is important to interpretation.
Coming back to periods, it is more reasonable, in construing the Declaration, to recognize that the series of “that” clauses — that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, that they receive these rights, that whenever any form of government — are all complements to the introductory clause, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
With or without the period, the Framers may have been acknowledging that all the following assertions were ideological — that is, simultaneously incapable of proof and impervious to refutation — a problem they cleverly finessed by describing them as “self-evident.”
Whether the brilliant Founding Fathers were using the words of the Declaration of Independence for such cynical reasons is impossible to prove. They knew all people weren’t equal, though they’d publicly agreed they were created so. I’d argue, James Raymond agrees, that it is self-evident, if readers just remember those rules of punctuation we learned (or should have) in fourth grade, that all those enumerated rights listed without the missing period are equally truths which should guide our nation.
Scholars who argue that the period is an errant change from the original faded and deteriorating parchment made in later copies by careless printers are probably correct. The Founding Fathers were too brilliant to make an error like this. More likely, as one expert suggested, the alleged period came from a smudge of the original author’s quill pen. Such are the vicissitudes of history.
Ronald Goldfarb and Professor James Raymond wrote Clear Understandings: A Guide to Legal Writing. Raymond is president of the International Institute for Legal Writing and Reasoning; his most recent book is Writing for the Court.