Understanding the Textual and Interpretive History of the Declaration of Independence
Is it a comma or a period? This was the central question on June 23, when historians, archivists, and history enthusiasts gathered at the National Archives for “Punctuating Happiness,” a 16-scholar symposium on one of the most iconic documents in US history—the Declaration of Independence—and its renowned phrase: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It may seem that whether the punctuation mark following the last word is a period or a comma is but a small point of uncertainty, but in fact it has inspired further inquiry into the circulation of the text in print culture, the work’s interpretation from the time of its composition to today, and the document’s gradual deterioration, to name a few. The gathering’s takeaway, however, was that the Declaration is not merely one text with one meaning, but many texts supporting a multitude of interpretations.
An inherent curiosity about authorial intent stimulated the punctuation question. In establishing critical editions of a literary or historical text, determining the author’s final intention often guides an editor’s hand in choosing one reading over another when there are multiple versions of the text (and very few works exist in one form only). Danielle Allen (Institute for Advanced Study), whose article “Punctuating Happiness” inspired this conference, argues that in the case of the Declaration of Independence, the placement of a comma versus a period drastically changes the way that pivotal sentence reads. (See right for a transcription of the passage in question.)
From its earliest printings, the Declaration circulated using both marks, and the manuscript in Jefferson’s hand is inconclusive. Allen argues that with a period, the sentence emphasizes the unalienable rights of men. With a comma, however, the entire statement becomes a syllogism emphasizing the colonies’ intention to declare independence: Men are entitled to certain rights, and governments are created to secure those rights; therefore, when a government fails in that task, men are entitled to rebel. Where, then, did the Founding Fathers’ focus lie—on unalienable rights, or the colonies’ intention to leave Great Britain?
Speakers discussed techniques for approaching this question, but without resolving it. Collector Seth Kaller looked at how the punctuation appeared in 18th-century reproductions; James McClure, editor of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, demonstrated methods for comparing the ambiguous punctuation mark to clearer ones in the manuscript; and historian Richard Wendorf (American Museum in Britain) discussed stylistic conventions that could have had an impact on punctuation in printing. Several scholars anticipated how hyperspectral imaging—detailed by Fenella France of the Library of Congress—might reveal more concrete truths.
“Punctuating Happiness” clarified that uncertainty makes the history of the Declaration more interesting. Allen emphasized the Declaration’s “diverse textual tradition,” concluding that “there isn’t one text of the Declaration of Independence.” Kaller reflected, “The best copy of the Declaration of Independence is the copy that any family has” and “knowing how different people read it is all part of the great importance of this document.”
“Unalienable Rights” for All Men: Jefferson’s First Draft
This openness to interpretation is particularly valuable when it comes to the problem of slavery, visible through the multiple stages of the Declaration’s authorship. Comparing Jefferson’s first draft to the copy the Continental Congress approved, historian Holly Brewer (Univ. of Maryland) demonstrated how the original draft sought to obliterate slavery in the new nation.
As Brewer revealed, Jefferson condemned the “execrable commerce,” accused King George III of hampering colonists’ attempts to restrict it, and granted “Africans” the same “unalienable rights” as white men. South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, however, vehemently opposed these passages, and because the Congress wanted the Declaration to be unanimous, it struck them out. (Eleven years later, South Carolina and Georgia would also oppose statements abolishing slavery in the Constitution.) Brewer noted that historians have seen the Continental Congress’s revision as inevitable given colonial dependence on slavery. She argued, however, that contemporary discourse was more complex—many colonists did, in fact, try to limit the slave trade, but the monarchy insisted upon maintaining the institution in the colonies, as it had for over a century. The Continental Congress agreed to overthrow the monarchy without also abandoning the system of slavery, “which was its fruit,” Brewer argued. She concluded, “On some fundamental level, conceding on slavery in 1776 and during the Constitutional Convention built a contradiction into America’s political soul.”
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.
The Declaration, Reinterpreted and Transformed
The statement on unalienable rights became ambiguous once these passages were deleted. Subsequent speakers demonstrated that while the document began as an “ordinance of secession,” as historian Woody Holton (Univ. of South Carolina) put it, subsequent American discourse turned it into a “charter of freedom” that would be fervently embraced by abolitionists. Historian Erik Slauter (Univ. of Chicago) showed that almost immediately after the Declaration’s creation, abolitionists singled out the words “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—followed by a period to emphasize human rights—as evidence of the new nation’s hypocrisy. By the Civil War, Americans came to see it as “a radical claim to human rights” that the Founding Fathers would not have anticipated.
The conversation on slavery and its treatment in the Declaration proved especially meaningful, falling only six days after the June 17 Charleston shooting. This tragedy followed hard on the heels of the Baltimore protests in April that had sparked renewed attention to police violence against African Americans. In this light, discussion of this contradiction in the Declaration of Independence was especially timely.
How do we move forward with this knowledge, and how can we convey it to others to help them better understand the Declaration’s place in American history? One way would be to reconsider how we present the Declaration in editions of the text. Should we use a period or a comma after “happiness”? Should we somehow include Jefferson’s original passages on slavery? How best can we present the Declaration as not only a “national creed,” as Martin Luther King Jr. called it, but also a marker of where the new nation first failed to live up to that creed? Roger Beckett (Ashbrook Center) argued, “You cannot understand America without understanding the Declaration of Independence,” and attendees left the archives with an increased appreciation of how much this document, when its full complexity is understood, contributes to reckoning with the history and current character of the United States.
The National Archives live-streamed “Punctuating Happiness”; the conference, which also included panels on teaching the Declaration and preservation methods at the archives, can be viewed in its entirety at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6sZkGXyEuM.
Stephanie Kingsley is the AHA’s associate editor, web content and social media. She tweets @KingsleySteph.
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