Friday, July 4, 2014

Is the Declaration of Independence Missing a Period?

Danielle Allen, a faculty member at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, is arguing that the Declaration of Independence is missing a period.  Here is a taste of an article on her research published in The New York Times:

A scholar is now saying that the official transcript of the document produced by the National Archives and Records Administration contains a significant error — smack in the middle of the sentence beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” no less.

The error, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., concerns a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript, but almost certainly not, she maintains, on the badly faded parchment original.

That errant spot of ink, she believes, makes a difference, contributing to what she calls a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the document.

The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

What should we make of this?  It is certainly interesting that Allen's discovery comes at a time in American political history when major debates are occurring over the relationship between government and individual liberties.  And Jack Rakove and Jack Greene, among others, seem to give Allen's research credibility.

Joe Adelman has offered a "contrarian" take on Allen's research and the New York Times article describing her work.  I suggest reading it alongside the New York TImes essay and Allen's post at her own blog.  Here is a taste of Joe's piece:

...twenty-first century readers, ascribe much more regularity and meaning to punctuation than did eighteenth-century readers, printers, or typesetters. As the Times essay notes, some versions of the Declaration have a period, some don’t. That was completely common in the eighteenth century, as each printer had what I can best describe as a “house style.” When reprinting newspaper articles, for example, printers might keep the text verbatim, but change all of the semi-colons (;) to em-dashes (—) or vice versa. In certain printings of the Declaration, as literary scholar Jay Fliegelman has noted, there are absences of punctuation where in Jefferson’s rough draft there were commas (Fliegelman argues that the difference relates to interpretations of punctuation as notes for reading aloud) Letter-writers similarly varied their punctuation. In particular, some ended sentences with periods (.), but others with a brief line (__). If you look at the parchment copy, there is such a line at the end of the phrase in question.

Read Joe's entire post here.