A recent article entitled “An Extra Period in The Declaration of Independence Might Change Our Understanding of Government” says that we may have been interpreting the Declaration of Independence all wrong for the past 200+ years. The suggestion that we must reinterpret the Declaration comes from Danielle Allen, an eagle-eyed professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. According to Allen, the misplacement of a single period requires us to completely reinterpret the Founding Fathers’ conception of the role of government. As it has come down to us, the disputed language reads:
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 ....
According to Allen, this language should actually read:
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 ....
Do you see the discrepancy? You have to look close. It’s the period after “Happiness,” which Allen says shouldn’t be there. Some early copies of the Declaration don’t have the period, and some do. The original may or may not have the period. The original Declaration is so old, frail, and faded that trying to verify whether the period is there might destroy the document.
Allen contends that removing the period after “Happiness” makes "securing governments" a part of the same sentence as "pursuing happiness." She says omitting the period shifts the emphasis of the language from personal rights to government responsibilities. Instead of the people having a right to see to their own happiness, the government should be tasked with the job of making them happy. Under the revised interpretation, it seems our Founding Fathers were actually proto-postmodernists who thought big government should look after little people.
The first problem that I see with the interpretation is that the whole idea of the American Revolution was to get big government out of the people’s business.
The second problem I see with the interpretation is that whether there’s a period after “Happiness” or not, it doesn’t make any difference. Just as pronunciation and spelling of words change over time, so does punctuation. I’ve recently been reading a lot of old court documents from the early 1800’s, and I noticed a difference in punctuation from modern usage. They used to use dashes in the place of periods. The usage was not uniform; sometimes they’d use dashes and sometimes they’d use period. We don't use dashes like that any more, but how we use them now doesn't change what the Founding Fathers meant when they used them back in 1776. What I’m saying is that whether there’s a period after Happiness” or not, the sentence ends with “Happiness,” putting the pursuit of happiness in a separate sentence from securing governments. My interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the first word after the dash, “That,” is capitalized. From what I have seen of old manuscripts, even in olden times when they over-used capitalization, they only capitalized nouns and the first word of sentences. "That" isn't a noun, so it wouldn't have been capitalized unless it was the first word of a sentence.
In summary: 1. Don't run the risk of destroying the Declaration of Independence looking for a period. 2. Whether there’s a period there or not, it doesn’t change the meaning of the document. 3. The Founding Fathers intended to end the sentence with the word “Happiness.” 4. The Founding Fathers were trying to throw off governmental micromanagement, not endorse it.
Allen is engaging in the lawyer’s favorite pastime, “flyspecking.” Flyspecking is a process whereby lawyers try to wring out hidden meaning not readily apparent from a cursory reading of a document.