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Ear to the Ground

Have We Been Misreading the Declaration of Independence?

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Posted on Jul 4, 2014

Photo by David Amsler (CC BY 2.0)

An errant ink splotch or a genuine period? A scholar says an official transcript of the Declaration of Independence contains an error that has led many Americans to misinterpret the document for almost two centuries.

Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., points to a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript used by the National Archives and Records Administration, but not, she maintains, on the badly faded original. She states the ink has contributed to “a routine but serious misunderstanding of the document” that lies at the heart of the contemporary debate between conservatives and liberals over the proper function of government.

The New York Times reports:

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.”

Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen’s research say she has raised a serious question.

“Are the parts about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or — as Americans have tended to read the document — subordinate to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?” said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

Read more about the finding and the debate over it here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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