Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?

There's a heated scholarly debate about a questionable period that may extend our rights beyond "the pursuit of happiness."

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Here's some fun news for the Fourth of July: America might be reading an important passage of the Declaration of Independence all wrong. A scholar's argument that an authoritative transcription of the Declaration contains a period that isn't actually in the original document has convinced the National Archives to re-examine their presentation of the document. That's according to a well-timed New York Times story on the controversy, which could change how we read the passage beginning "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

First, let's pinpoint what's in question here. The official transcription from the National Archives reads (emphasis ours):

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.

See that period? According to Princeton professor Danielle Allen, it's not actually in the original document. If she's right, then the individual rights of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" would share a sentence with what follows:

— 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.

Allen, speaking to the Times, argues that Thomas Jefferson intended to emphasize the second part of this passage — the role of the government — equally with the individual rights in the first part. Instead, with the period in place, there's an implied hierarchy. So you can begin to see how one little punctuation mark's presence or absence could become the subject of heated debate among those who have strong opinions about the role of government as it concerns individual liberty. Although the punctuation mark is still very much up for debate among experts, Allen has convinced several scholars that she might be on to something. The National Archives told the Times that they "want to take advantage of this possible new discovery" and find a way to re-examine the incredibly fragile original Declaration of Independence.

And that brings us to why it's so difficult to get to the bottom of this question. The handful of facsimiles that are considered early, authoritative copies of the original document differ on the presence of the period, although Allen argues that the bulk of those early copies — including the "Rough Draft" of the document — support her conclusions. So the original document could be the only thing that could put this line of questioning to rest. But the 1776 original, stored in a complex preservation system along with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, is in really, really bad shape. It's more or less illegible. The National Archive will try to use new imaging technology to get a clearer picture of the mark in question, but it's not guaranteed to be conclusive.

If it does turn out that Allen is right, however, it would hardly be the first time a founding document has contained an error or a revision. The Constitution is basically full of small errors, for instance. And in 2010, the Library of Congress announced that it had discovered evidence of a big correction Jefferson himself made to the rough draft of the Declaration: Jefferson initially wrote the word "subjects" at one point, but later smudged out the word and wrote a different one in its place: "citizens."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.