A Contrarian Take on the Mystery of the Missing Period

Last night the New York Times ran a piece on a mystery of punctuation in the Declaration of Independence (in classic NYT style, the headline reads “A Period is Questioned” … cute). According to Danielle Allen, a political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the National Archives transcript of the Declaration includes a period after the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” not contained in the parchment copy. Confusion, apparently, ensues:

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.”

In other words, it’s a typographical choice with serious consequences for how we understand American democracy and rights. Fine, but that’s only true if you set aside two major issues with asking the question that way.

First, and I’m going to italicize for emphasis because it’s important: the parchment copy is not the original. On July 4, the date on which the Declaration was adopted, Congress ordered the printing of 200 copies by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap, signed by two men: John Hancock, the President of Congress, and Charles Thomson, its Secretary. If an original we must have, that’s it (and it’s shown above, linked from the National Archives website). Those originals circulated to the Continental Army stationed in New York, to crowds assembled throughout the new states (including locally at the Old State House in Boston), to the Court of St. James and Parliament in Great Britain, and to other European powers. A few weeks later, Congress ordered a parchment copy, which most members signed in August 1776. It was then rolled up and carried with Congress. No one saw the names of all of the signers until January 1777, in an edition published by Baltimore printer Mary Katherine Goddard.

In other words, there are well-punctuated, clearly legible, more original copies of the Declaration on which we could rely for the transcript (if you go to the Charters of Freedom exhibit in Washington, the Dunlap broadside is the neglected document to the left of center).

But wait, there’s more! Because the other problem is that we, 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.

To be brief and snarky, we’re asking a silly question about the wrong version of the Declaration. In 1776, very few people would have given much thought to which punctuation mark was in that particular location, nor would they have been particularly bothered by the variety. But they also wouldn’t have had much idea at all that there was a parchment version that later generations would fetishize. So yes, with the grammar and syntax rules of today, the difference between the period and not-the-period has consequences, but simply taking a microscope to parchment is not going to solve the mystery.

UPDATE (10:12 AM): Upon further research, Danielle Allen has published an essay on her IAS website entitled “Punctuating Happiness.” That essay goes into great detail on the textual and printing history of the Declaration in essentially the ways I suggest here were missing from the New York Times article.

UPDATE 2 (4:45 PM): I had some time today to read Allen’s paper on the punctuation issue (it’s fabulous) and tweeted some further thoughts, collected below:



  1. Amen, Joe! I’d add that this ridiculous diversion does a real disservice to our profession–how much time have we all spent trying to persuade people that this is NOT what we do?–and it encourages people to think about the past in precisely the wrong way. Rather than pin undue significance upon a fruitless debate about how long a pen touched paper in one split eighteenth-century second–a question whose answer won’t ultimately be the foundation for a reliable argument about anything, anyways–we should be teaching people to think about the words, learn (rather than, in this case, ignore) what they can about the context in which they were produced, and then make a decision for themselves about how to interpret them.

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