Is There a Typo in the Declaration of Independence?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 3 2014 3:03 PM

Is There a Typo in the Declaration of Independence?

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The Declaration of Independence.

National Archives

“There’s a typo in the Declaration of Independence.” It sounds an awful lot like a National Treasure kind of line that could only be served up cold, onscreen, by Nicolas Cage. It turns out, however, on the transcript of the country’s founding document, a slip of the proverbial quill might have left an unintended period midsentence that could change how we understand the document’s meaning. Sound absurd by even Nick Cage–ian standards?

Here’s more from the New York Times on the theory put forward by Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, that the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence produced by the National Archives contains an error:

The error… concerns a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript, but almost certainly not, she maintains, on the badly faded parchment original… But that document has faded almost to the point of illegibility, leaving scholars to look to other versions from 1776 to determine the “original” text… The period does not appear in Jefferson’s so-called original rough draft (held in the Library of Congress), or in the broadside that Congress ordered from the Philadelphia printer John Dunlap on July 4. It also does not appear in the version that was copied into Congress’s official records, known as its “corrected journal,” in mid-July.
That errant spot of ink, [Allen] believes, makes a difference, contributing to what she calls a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the document. 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.”

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.

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