Typos in the US Constitution Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Typos in the US Constitution

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The US Constitution was written over a single weekend in September. The specifics and details had taken weeks and weeks to formalise, the concepts and ideas years to envision - even decades. Yet, the preparation of the document itself was something of a rush job. It had to be done quickly once the document's text was formalised, in order for the delegates at what came to be known as the Constitutional Convention to sign the document on Monday. The job of writing it up was given to the clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a man named Jacob Shallus. Shallus was probably more interested in making the document look nice than in placing every letter, every mark, exactly where it needed to be. In order to get that 'official' look, he used parchment, quill and ink and some other tools to make the text dark, distinct and readable. Every so often, Titivillus would strike, and Shallus would make a mistake. For many of these mistakes, he went back and scraped the old word out and replaced it1, but certainly not for all of them. He probably spent more time on the calligraphy and the bold, engrossed titles, than on presenting the details exactly as they were given to him. The result is a beautiful document, but one that is less than perfect.

To be fair, Shallus probably did not realise that his effort would come to be one of the most, if not the most, heavily scrutinised document in the history of the world. It is also now one of the most heavily protected documents in the history of the world. It is housed in the National Archives in Washington DC, behind bullet proof glass. In case of a bomb attack on Washington, it can quickly go down into a bomb shelter. It is therefore probably immediately inaccessible to you, reader. However, the National Archives helpfully has high-resolution copies of the Constitution and Bill of Rights available for download on their website. Thus all citizens of the world can see what mistakes are included in the document most important to American government.

Smudges of Law

Toby: I read the Constitution... I think I found a typo.
CJ: In the Constitution? Did you call the publisher?
Toby: I think it's a typo in the original.
CJ: The Constitution?
Toby: Yeah.
CJ: Sounds unlikely.
Toby: I read two versions, because I have time, and there's an inconsistent comma. So I looked at every English language publication that exists. Half of them have the comma, half of them don't.
CJ: Really?
Toby: Yeah, so I called the National Archives, and had some woman look at the original. She said she wasn't sure if it was a comma or a smudge.
CJ: There's a smudge?
Toby: Yeah, a smudge. Of law.
CJ: Does it change the...
Toby: It changes the meaning of the takings clause.
CJ: Seriously? I'm sure it doesn't.
Toby: I called Tom Merrill, he thinks it does.
- From The West Wing, Season Seven

The above quote refers to a section of the Fifth Amendment, sometimes referred to as the 'takings clause'. An inconsistent comma supposedly appears between the words 'use' and 'without' in the phrase, 'nor shall private property be taken for public use[,] without just compensation'. From this important clause was born the concept of eminent domain, which allows government to take property from citizens if it is for the larger good - such as bulldozing a house to build a highway overpass. Ridiculously enough, the absence or presence of these commas is an important legal question, and many versions differ. Some would say that there are two commas surrounding the words 'for public use'. According to some legal scholars, the presence of these commas would totally change the meaning of the Fifth Amendment so that the government would not be quite so restrained to only taking private property if it is for public use. In theory, if those commas exist, the government would have a bit more legal room to confiscate private property.

The Tom Merrill mentioned in the quote from The West Wing is, at the time of this writing, a constitutional scholar and professor at Columbia Law School. He believes that the words 'for public use' modify the word 'taken', and thus items taken for the public use are merely a subset of what the government can take. His belief in this particular grammatical structure would certainly be aided by the presence of commas, but Professor Merrill prefers to base his reasoning on the attitudes and other writings of the author of the Fifth Amendment, James Madison.

In the opinion of this researcher, after reviewing the aforementioned high resolution copy of the Bill of Rights, there is a strong case to be made for the presence of a single comma following the word 'use'. There are definitely some sort of vertical lines following the word 'taken', which could be mistaken for commas. Wrinkles, cracks, dots and unruly lines abound through the constitution, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact choices of punctuation in many places. When scrutinising the Constitution closely, one almost expects to see the sweat ring of a coffee cup or a corner piece ripped off where Benjamin Franklin needed a piece of parchment to write his address for an attractive French lady. The grammatical structure of sentences in the Constitution, and many other documents from the 18th Century, would give a scholar of the English language nightmares. Punctuation was, at best inconsistent, and at worst, arbitrary in places. That is probably more due to the fact that the English language was not very standardised at this point, and no-one was particularly picky about spelling and grammar.

Misspellings

Perhaps the most glaring error in the document is one that cannot be attributed to our friend Jacob Shallus. On the fourth page of the Constitution, there is a list of delegates, grouped by the states they represented. The last of the states listed was Pennsylvania, the state which all of the signers were in at the time. However, whoever labeled the Pennsylvania delegates2 as 'Pensylvania'? Notice the missing 'n'. That is extra evidence that Shallus is not to blame for this obvious mistake, as he was a citizen of Pennsylvania, and would therefore most likely have known how to spell it.

To be fair, 'Pensylvania' was used by some people of the period, before it was standardised as 'Pennsylvania'. However, the state was named after one Rear Admiral William Penn Sr (double 'n') and so it's sort of silly that someone would drop one of the letters of his name. Nevertheless, even if 'Pensylvania' was a legitimate spelling at the time, it is inconsistent with a previous mention of the state, in Article 1, Section 2, which talks about initial apportionment of the House of Representatives (it gives 'Pennsylvania' the power to elect eight Representatives).

Also scattered throughout the Constitution is the use of the spelling 'chuse' in place of 'choose'. The text is at least consistent in its usage of it, suggesting that it was not so much a typo as a misguided usage of a non-standard spelling. It appears four times in Article I and five times in Article II. The spelling 'choose' does not appear in the original Constitution, though it does make appearances in the text of more modern amendments.

There are a few other misspellings, but nothing quite as serious. There are understandably quite a lot of British spellings of words, which are not really to be considered typos, many of the American spellings not having been widely adopted, or even invented yet. Some American spellings surface in the text, and some British spellings. It creates an interesting mix, for that most American of documents.

It's a Contraction!

Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution states:

No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws

Vigilant eyes will have already guessed that the mistake in that section is the unnecessary apostrophe in 'its'. Those who did not spot the mistake should not worry too much. The details of the Constitution is known to be so riveting to many that they miss some of the more obvious typos. Examining the original, the apostrophe is unambiguous, but because of the slant of the cursive, there is a slight possibility that it reads as its', which would be even worse.

Inconsistency

The 'master' copy of the Constitution is the Jacob Shallus version, but for each state, a copy of the Constitution was written out and sent back to the states for ratification. Thus, 13 more early versions of the Constitution were drafted by the Convention. Undoubtedly, there are therefore 14 'original' different versions of the same document (all, it seems, hand- written). It is arguable that since the copies were not all the same (and they were not) the states did not all ratify the exact same document. It is in that way that the paranoid can claim the dissolution of the US government based on a typo. However, the scribes of the time are not to be blamed too harshly. Even today, most copies of the Constitution vary slightly from the original in places, in areas of questionable punctuation and spelling especially. But at the time, around 75% of American adults couldn't write, so even writing in nonstandard, inconsistent English was something of an achievement.

Unfortunately, the framers of the Constitution did not have spell-check3 and did not even really have a standard dictionary to consult. It is forgivable that the US Constitution is not a perfect document. In fact, one of the beautiful things about the contents of that parchment is that it recognises and expects imperfect human behaviour from those that it will govern. We should expect nothing less from those that wrote it. The Preamble of the Constitution calls for a 'more perfect Union', but not complete perfection.

Postscript

As this entry is quite pedantic and nitpicky in nature, this author wishes to plead that the reader not concern himself too much with the concept of hypocrisy if such small errors arise in this entry as they have in the US Constitution.

1We know this because he included an 'errata' paragraph listing the changes which he made. This was to ensure that if evidence was found that words were scraped and changed, future readers would know that it was not the work of a very subtle revolutionary, but the work of the original scribe.2Probably not Shallus. For one thing, the handwriting of the state labels is somewhat sloppy next to Shallus's sure, clean strokes. Also, the labels would most likely have been added after all the delegates had signed and not while Shallus was drawing up the original, because of the unpredictable and differing sizes of their signatures. For instance, James Madison, who did more to author the document than anyone else, modestly signed his name in a very small print, three signatures below a Maryland delegate who chose to write his name as 'Dan of ST ThoS. Jenifer' at least four times as large as Madison. The entire South Carolinia delegation seems to have liked the look of their own names.3A device without which the author of this extremely pedantic entry would look quite foolish.

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