Punctuation Error in Declaration of Independence: Scholar

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images/Spencer Platt
    A page from the Declaration of Independence is displayed at the New York Public Library on July 3, 2009 in New York City. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 and announced that the thirteen American colonies, then at war with Great Britain, were now independent states.

    Our unalienable rights are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" — period. Right?

    Wrong says a scholar from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who has detected a possible punctuation error in the Declaration of Independence.

    In 1823, a guy named William Stone engraved what's become the "authoritative text" or our official copy of the Declaration of Independence.

    Stone put a period after the word "happiness."

    However, in the original parchment signed by the Founding Fathers, professor Danielle Allen said "there's a whole lot of historical evidence that probably it's a comma after pursuit of happiness, not a period."

    Allen said a comma changes our understanding of what comes after "happiness."

    "The whole sentence moves from the fact that we do have these individual rights through the idea that we use government to secure those rights."

    Allen said most people stop reading after the period. However, the comma leads to another interpretation that puts more emphasis on the role of government in protecting those rights.

    "That is a very different meaning than if you focus simply on individual rights, my pursuit of happiness, me me me," she said. "Whereas actually the story of the sentence is a story about we, about us, about what we do together."

    Allen doesn't expect a punctuation change to settle any national debates about the size and scope of government. But she hopes it will give more Americans a reason to go back and reread the Declaration of Independence — all 1,337 words.