“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.”

Period.

It is that period in the official transcript and on the 1823 engraving held by the National Archives and Records Administration that is being called into question on the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and signed on July 4, 1776, by the Second Continental Congress.

The engraving of the Declaration of Independence includes a period that some think should not be there. (Image source: National Archives and Records Administration)

The engraving of the Declaration of Independence includes a period that some think should not be there. (Image source: National Archives and Records Administration)

Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, told the New York Times this period is not on the original parchment of the historic document.

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Allen told the Times. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Here’s the full transcript of that segment, highlighting where Allen sees the period as an unintentional flaw in the sentence’s flow (emphasis added):

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.–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.

A close up of the area on the engraved version that shows the period in question. (Image source: National Archives and Records Administration)

A close up of the area on the engraved version that shows the period in question. (Image source: National Archives and Records Administration)

Allen said this causes a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the sentence’s intention:

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.

Other scholars are entertaining the question that Allen’s point raises as well, some thinking the period could have been meant as a comma.

“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’?” Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford University who is on the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee, told the Times. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis, who currently teaches at University of Massachusetts, called it “the battle of the period.”

After at first hearing nothing for months from the National Archives staff on the matter, Allen later learned they are considering changing their transcript of the Declaration of Independence online.

“We want to take advantage of this possible new discovery,” William Mayer, executive for research services for the National Archives, told the Times in an email.

It’s more complex than just turning to the original parchment behind bulletproof glass to find the official answer. Given that it’s so faded, the Times reported that scholars are forced to use other historic copies instead. The period is not in what’s thought to be Jefferson’s original draft or in other copies made shortly after the signing.

The faded parchment of the original Declaration of Independence signed in 1776.  (Image source: National Archives and Records Administration)

The faded parchment of the original Declaration of Independence signed in 1776. (Image source: National Archives and Records Administration)

Then again, the period does pop up in other copies not too long afterward, like the ones ordered in January 1777 that were distributed to the states, according to the Times. Then there is, of course, the 1823 copperplate made to replicate the parchment, which in less than 50 years was fading at that point.

Allen told the Times she thinks William Stone, who made the copperplate, likely used another version, not the original parchment for some of his engraving due to the paper already being faded to the point of being illegible in some places.

The National Archives is considering different types of imaging that could be conducted on the parchment through its glass case to closely view the document.

“We don’t yet know what’s possible,” Mayer told the Times.

Read a draft version of Allen’s research regarding this piece of punctuation published on the Institute for Advanced Study’s website.

(H/T: Boston Globe)