The Most Consequential Comma in U.S. History?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Jack Parker, makes an interesting case:

Regardless of one’s position on gun-ownership rights and the consequences of those rights, there is one singular problem with the Second Amendment: It is grammatically incorrect and, as a result, nonsensical.

Upon completion of his assignment as U.S. minister to France and return from Paris to assume his position as secretary of state under George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the best scribe among the Founding Fathers and possibly the best educated, was appalled at the grammar of the Second Amendment. He attempted to correct its grammatical mistakes—specifically, misplaced commas—but the text of the proposed amendment, along with the other nine amendments that would come to be known as the Bill of Rights, had already been sent out to the states for ratification, so it was too late.

It is clear to me that the intent of Jefferson’s attempted corrections was to directly link “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” to the maintenance of a “well regulated Militia,” which, at the time when the nascent nation had no standing military, was indeed “necessary to the security of a free State.” Below, first, is the official ratified text of the Second Amendment compared to, second, the proposed correction by Jefferson:

  1. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
  1. A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.

Anyone with a sixth grade education should recognize that the commas in the official amendment render it a statement consisting of four disconnected phrases, and not a complete sentence.

Much has been written about those misplaced commas, and those who favor unmitigated gun-ownership rights scoff at their effect and focus only on the last phrase. In fact, it is precisely because of the placement of the commas that they are in their own minds enabled to clump the last two phrases together and separate them from the first two.

Elsewhere in misplaced commas of great historical consequence, check out this Priceonomics post. Money quote:

In 1872, one misplaced comma in a tariff law cost American taxpayers more than $2 million, or $38,350,000 in today’s dollars.