In Declaration of Independence, truths not all self evident

What’s wrong with this document?


An academic in New Jersey says a period after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” appears in the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence, but not on the badly faded original that’s on display.

Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, says the original period was just a blotch of ink that we’ve come to accept as a period but the signers never intended for it to be there, the New York Times reports.

What’s the big deal?

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.”

“We are having a national conversation about the value of government, and it does get connected to our founding documents,” Allen says. “We should get right what’s in them.”

For now, it’s impossible to say. And isn’t it too late to change the entire basis of government?