Debates about punctuation, for me, are like debates about rests and accidentals in musical scores. They go on and on; if the manuscript is old enough, they can be decided by a coin flip; and they force us, in the end, to consider the work as a whole—its shape, its construction and intent. Mozart’s scores, for instance, several of which were left in disarray on the composer’s death, come in for a fair share of controversy. In his Piano Concerto No. 13, is the complex figured bass in the tutti by a quirkily inclined Mozart, or do the multiple tiny irregularities—the piano holding a D note against the full orchestra, or inconsistencies in the noting of accidentals—suggest the work of a hack? The conclusion you draw may lead to your judgment of the work as a whole.
So it is with the period in the Declaration of Independence that Danielle Allen, a political scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study, is calling a stray ink blot. Punctuation rules in the 18th century, despite Ben Jonson’s English Grammar, remained mostly elocutionary. We have already talked ourselves hoarse over the excessive commas in the syntax of the Second Amendment. But Allen’s argument contends that the full stop of a period following the opening clause of the second sentence of the Declaration distorts the logic of the founders. Here’s the passage in question, in the form most of us have seen:
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.
Looking through the archives, Allen found evidence that the period after the first “Happiness” was unintended. Others, looking at the same material, have found it closer to a comma (parallel to the comma following the word governed). What difference does it make?
Jack Rakove of Stanford is quoted in The New York Times as believing that the stray period subordinates the importance of good government to the claims about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” On the face of it, his argument seems weak to me. The first sentence of a paragraph is generally the topic sentence, yes. But separating one idea from the other by means of a full stop does not subordinate the second idea to the first. Rush Limbaugh, roundly fulminating at the reporter who brought Allen’s discovery to light, inadvertently gives us a clue to a more enlightening view of the matter:
And her point is that without the period, the sentence just flows without a stop and grants equal power to government—in fact, maybe even more power—to secure those rights. Now, again, I want to stress here, ladies and gentlemen that this is bogus. … The role of government is subordinated to the people. But it doesn’t matter to this scholar. It doesn’t matter to this feminist who is attempting to claim that the original Founding Father Declaration of Independence was designed to establish a big government in order to secure and provide those rights. … This assertion here that there should not be a period and that that changes dramatically the whole sentence, the whole paragraph. It’s completely incorrect grammatically without a period. If you don’t have a period in this paragraph it is completely ungrammatical and there is nothing else in the Declaration of Independence that is ungrammatical. Nothing. They were painstaking about that.
Well, yes, Rush. They were. Their punctuation was irregular by contemporary standards, but their grammar and syntax were elegant. And the odd thing about placing a period after the initial word Happiness is that it renders the very long passage that follows a fragment. As any old-fashioned sentence diagrammer will tell you, without that pesky period, there are four noun clauses in the sentence, each beginning with the word that, each in apposition to the truths we are holding to be self-evident.
If the period stands, the thats should go, and the comma after governed as well. The passage would then read thus:
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. To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. 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.
Obviously, no one would allow such butchery of a sacred document. But place the word that at the beginning of the second (and, presumably, the third) sentence, and it has no referent; the noun clauses introduced by that have no way to operate, no role to play in the so-called sentence to which they belong.
Syntactically, then, losing the period after Happiness seems the wisest solution. Once we get past this hurdle the size of an ink blot, perhaps we can begin debating how self-evident, really, those four truths still are to us.
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