If only Jefferson could settle a period question

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Every Fourth of July, some Americans sit down to read the Declaration of Independence, reacquainting themselves with the nation’s founding charter exactly as it was signed by the Second Continental Congress in 1776.

Or almost exactly? A scholar is now saying the official transcript of the document produced by the National Archives 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.”

Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen’s research say she has raised a serious question.

“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Stanford University historian Jack Rakove, a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

Ms. Allen first wondered about the period two years ago, while researching her book “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality,” published last week by Liveright. The period does not appear on the other known versions produced with congressional oversight in 1776 or, for that matter, in most major 20th-century scholarly books on the document. So what was it doing in the National Archives’ transcription?

Ms. Allen wrote to the archives in 2012, raising the question, and received a response saying its researchers would look into the matter, followed by silence. But over the past several months, she has quietly enlisted a number of scholars and manuscript experts in what historian Joseph J. Ellis, who supports her efforts to open the question, wryly called “the battle of the period.”

And now the archives, after a meeting last month with Ms. Allen, says it is weighing changes to its online presentation of the Declaration of Independence. “We want to take advantage of this possible new discovery,” William A. Mayer, the archives’ executive for research services, said in an email. A discussion of ways to safely re-examine the badly deteriorated parchment, he added, is now “a top priority.”

That parchment, created in late July 1776 and credited to the hand of Timothy Matlack, is visible to anyone at the National Archives Museum in Washington, where it is kept in a bulletproof glass case filled with stabilizing argon gas that is lowered each evening into an underground vault.

But that document has faded almost to the point of illegibility, leaving scholars to look to other versions from 1776 to determine the “original” text.

The period does not appear in Jefferson’s so-called original rough draft (held in the Library of Congress), or in the broadside that Congress ordered from Philadelphia printer John Dunlap on July 4. It also does not appear in the version that was copied into Congress’ official records, known as its “corrected journal,” in mid-July.

Defenders of the period are not without ammunition. The mark does appear in some official and unofficial early printings, including the broadside that Congress commissioned from Baltimore printer Mary Katherine Goddard in 1777 for distribution to the states.



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