- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2014

As the nation celebrates Independence Day, there is a debate brewing over a few squiggles on parchment that could change the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

The New York Times reported that the National Archives and Records Administration recorded a period after Thomas Jefferson’s list of self-evident truths that ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But the original, badly faded document does not seem to have the period, said Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.


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The result is that the list of truths is set apart from what comes next: the role of government 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 told The Times. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

** FILE ** This rare 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence previously resided in Wiscasset, Maine, but is now owned by Richard Adams Jr., a Virginia technology entrepreneur. Only 11 of about 250 copies of the 1776 Declaration of Independence are known to still exist. (Associated Press)
** FILE ** This rare 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence ... more >

Scholars are taking the argument seriously, The Times said.


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“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 member of the National Archives’ Founding Fathers Advisory Committee, told The Times. “You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help.”

The period seems to appear in early drafts and copies of the declaration, but not others, furthering the debate.