The pursuit of Happiness. Period. Or not.

The official transcript of the Declaration of Independence puts a period after the iconic phrase “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.” The transcript is drawn from an 1823 engraving by printer William J. Stone who was commissioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to make a facsimile of the original manuscript on parchment written by Timothy Matlack, clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, and signed by the Continental Congress on August 2nd, 1776. (July 4th is the day the Declaration was officially adopted, not the day John Hancock put his John Hancock on it.) The Stone engraving is the most frequently reproduced version of the Declaration of Independence.

By the time Stone made his copy, the original was already suffering from condition issues. That’s why he was commissioned to copy it, in fact, so there would be a version for distribution to the surviving signers, their families, luminaries of the Revolution like Lafayette and public institutions nationwide. Stone’s engraving is considered the closest thing we have to the Declaration when it was still legible. The original, now on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is kept in a bulletproof glass case filled with inert argon gas. The writing is so faded as to be next to illegible.

It’s impossible to confirm with the naked eye, therefore, whether there was a period after “the pursuit of Happiness” in the original. Professor Danielle Allen from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, thinks there was not, that Stone made a mistake that has been carried forward nearly two centuries. It’s not pedantry that underpins her analysis. The punctuation plays a significant part in the interpretation of the preamble.

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 Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

Several early documents support Allen’s argument. There is no period in any of the official versions written or printed in 1776. Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft has a semicolon after the pursuit of Happiness, just as it does at the end of all the “that” clauses in the sentence. The Dunlap Broadside, printed in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776, uses a triplicate dash, an m-dash followed by a space and a hyphen.

There is a period in an unauthorized leaked version of the Declaration published in Benjamin Towne’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on July 6, 1776. The first official document to include a period after Happiness was the 1777 broadside printed by Mary Katharine Goddard. The first public issue of the Declaration to include the names of all the signatories (minus one, Thomas McKean of Delaware, who may have signed after Goddard’s version was printed), the Goddard broadside was commissioned by Congress for distribution to the states. Goddard and Towne knew each other well. Towne began his career in the print shop of William Goddard, Mary’s father, and Mary had reprinted Towne’s version in her own paper, the Baltimore Journal, on July 10th, 1776. It’s no surprise, therefore, that she stuck with Towne’s punctuation when she printed the official broadside in January of 1777.

Allen thinks the period made its way into Towne’s bootleg printing as an artifact of the many diacritical marks Jefferson included in his drafts to convey the flow of it as a document to be read out loud. You can read her paper about it, Punctuating Happiness, here (pdf). She goes into very persuasive and fascinating detail, analyzing the early written and print versions, breaking down the stylistic differences between John Adams’ work and Thomas Jefferson’s and ever so much more. It is seriously a page-turner and very appropriate reading for the day.

The National Archives found it persuasive as well. They are now looking into making some changes to their online presentation of the Declaration based on her work, and are examining the possibility of deploying new imaging technology to photograph the Declaration through its encasement and reveal details not visible to the naked eye.

10 thoughts on “The pursuit of Happiness. Period. Or not.

    1. I hope that’s a joke, but I’m afraid I can’t assume it. This topic appears to bring out the polemicists among us so it’s hard to discern humorous intent.

  1. vanderleun’s comment is interesting in its lack of specificity and reliance on the old standby of those with no supporting evidence. I took my time and read the Allen article thoroughly, taking my time to digest it. I think she makes an excellent case for her premise, referring to the extant materials and using recognized analytical tools.

    In fact, what she’s done is construct a pretty solid proof statement. Is there something that vanderleun would like to present that constitutes a counter argument? With the same degree of scholarly competancy? Or are terms such as “drivel” and “dolt” the extent of his scholarly vocabulary? I realize that those terms have a long history of use in scholarly endeavors, but I would hope that it were possible to have a reasonable discussion without resorting to terms such as those. Oh, wait… I forgot. This is the internet. Darn.

    It will be interesting to see what the new imaging studies reveal. But regardless, there appear to be a couple of different objections at work here. One is the perceptual alteration of the Declaration that the punctuation as presented by Allen would entail– some people are not going to feel comfortable with that. The other just sounds like sour grapes. Or something. As for T. Jefferson, the man was a cauldron of seething contradictions. Like many men of his standing and station (not to speak of possible cognitive issues), he was quite capable of writing one thing (and thinking he believed it) and living another.

    1. Please read the paper before talking nonsense, or at least read the first sentence of the post. It’s about the Declaration, not the Constitution, and nowhere does anybody make any such ludicrous claim about the Declaration being written to protect the governments’ rights.

  2. It is interesting to watch so much interest in the possibilities presented by the period, while at the same time nobody ever discusses the fact that the phrase is in a literal sense complete nonsense. It is the expression of a rather vague neo-Viking tribal insistence that everybody in the tribe ultimately should have an equal voice. Jeremiah would haver regarded it as a joke, or worse. In our world it has become an important piece of the jargon used for modern Western political aggression. Ever since the mid 19th century industrial money centred in NY has put out an endless stream of propaganda asserting the right of the USA to conquer any other nation, because in doing so it is expanding the domain of human freedom. They destroyed the South to free the negro; they destroyed Germany to save the Jews; they invaded Afghanistan to liberate women. This is the legitimation behind the most voracious and destructive empire that the world has ever seen; the Mongols did not bring on climate change or release the nuclear menace.

    There are no two human beings that are alike, and to say that they are all created equal is factually, technically ludicrous. Only in some Platonic realm of pure forms can this have any reality at all. That this particular line, written by a slave owner and rebellion leader, should be under such careful scrutiny right now, when Americans have just made war on so very many new enemies is very weird for outsiders to watch. History is likely to pick over these documents, regarding them as less than heroic, since this kind of nonsense has most recently been used to justify murdering millions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya.

    1. The South wasn’t destroyed and the liberation of slaves was most certainly not the reason the North went to war. Nor was the Holocaust a causus belli for US entry into World War II, or the Taliban’s abhorrent treatment of women one for the war in Afghanistan. All of the conflicts you mention were justified by a far more simple premise: “they hit us first.” Your reading of “all men are created equal” is devoid of nuance or context and thus as ludicrous as you believe the phrase itself to be.

      In any case, I am weary of this subject being used as a springboard for pontification. Read the paper, if you’re interested, and feel free to comment on topic.

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