Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rights, government and a punctuation ambiguity in the Declaration of Independence

For rather obvious reasons, here at American Creation we take the 4th of July seriously. As we ramp up for the official Independence Day holiday here in the United States, the New York Time is running a story on what appears to be a newly discovered drafting ambiguity in the formal statement by the Continental Congress that got this whole America things rolling:  A Period is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence.

As the article details, the ambiguity isn't in a minor part of the Declaration, either, or in a one of the parts that hardly anybody reads anymore.  It is dead-center in the heart of the part of the Declaration that has been most interesting to Americans since the 1850s: the statement about inalienable rights and the basis of human government.  The way the text has traditionally been thought to read is as follows, with the newly-called into question punctuation in bold brackets:

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 foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Why does this matter?  As the article explains:
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.”
An interesting issue.  Fortunately, since the Declaration of Independence has no binding authority as a constitutional document, it is the kind of issue that likely won't have any major practical effect on how our rights and duties are understood legally.  But from the perspective of political philosophy, as well as basic drafting principles, the difference between a comma and a period in the text could be significant in understanding how the two parts of that section of the Declaration were meant to be read.

In any event, this story is a great reminder that there is always stuff waiting to be discovered in the historical record, and technology is only going to make that more true as time goes on.  Even a document as massively studied as the Declaration of Independence can offer up new insights over time.

Update:  in the comments fellow American Creation blogger Tom Van Dyke points out the counter-argument that the punctuation used in the document doesn't make all that much difference.  Clink on the comments and give his contribution a serious read.


Always On Watch said...

I'll be linking to this post tomorrow in my Independence Day 2014 blog post.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm with Matt Franck [as usual]--I dunno if it really changes the meaning.

Cool, though.

This is evidently what brought the matter front-page attention in the Times. But it makes no difference, so far as the meaning of the Declaration is concerned. In other places, including collections of Jefferson’s writings based on careful scholarship, I have seen this passage punctuated with a semicolon (which is how I’d have done it if I’d been the editor in 1776), and even with a colon. Any of them—period, dash, both together (a peculiar construction but not uncommon in the eighteenth century), colon, semicolon, or even comma—could have been used without having the slightest impact on the meaning.

For the fact is that, with the phrase “Pursuit of Happiness” (they were capital capitalizers in those days too—I suspect German influence), the list of “unalienable rights” has indeed come to an end. The next thought—whether in a new phrase, clause, or sentence—begins “That to secure these Rights,” and that is a distinct shift from end to means. The rights belong to every human being simply by virtue of our having been created equal and endowed with them by our Creator. Giving them practical realization will take the creation of a government, possessing just powers to which we consent. First end, then means. To quote Hillary Clinton, “What difference at this point does it make” whether the Continental Congress gave us a period, a dash, or both? One doesn’t “lose” a “connection,” one makes a particular kind of connection, and the punctuation has no substantive effect.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I'm with Tom (and Matt Franck) to a point. The presence or absence of a period, comma, semicolon or colon in front of the dash doesn't make a single bit of difference to the grammar of the text. The important punctuation is the dash.

The fact that the phrase "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" is preceded by a dash shows that this phrase is subordinate to the previous statement. The only real question from a grammatical standpoint is whether the second dash should be viewed as equivalent to a closing parenthesis, or as an indication that the phrase "That whenever any Form of Government..." is also subordinated to the opening statement about unalienable rights. In my opinion, the use of a comma after "governed" indicates that the latter of the two is correct.