Legal History

Stray period in Declaration of Independence copy causes 'serious misunderstanding,' scholar says


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The Declaration of Independence. Image from Shutterstock.

A stray period inserted near the beginning of the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence causes “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the historic document, a scholar says.

Just as some are preparing to read the Declaration aloud in celebration of the nation’s birthday on July 4, the New York Times (reg. req.) reports that professor Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., has cast doubt on whether the faded original document actually contains a period that is shown in the National Archives and Records Administration transcript.

Inserted immediately after “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the period creates a disconnect between that phrase and the role of governments “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The disconnect makes it harder for the reader to see that this vision of government was another truth held by the founding fathers to be self-evident, Allen says.

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

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com (July 2012): “Lawyers Commemorate July 4 Holiday with Courthouse Readings of Declaration of Independence”

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