Declaration Of Independence: Can An Ink Spot Change The Meaning?

The accuracy of the currently-used version of the Declaration of Independence has been called into question by a scholar, all over a period that may have actually been an ink spot. But does it matter?

The questionable period follows the one of the most iconic and cherished concepts in all of American culture – “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The unalienable right to these concepts forms the very foundation of the fabric of society in the United States of America. These bold ideals are celebrated wherever Americans cherish liberty, even aboard the International Space Station.

Now Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, tells the NY Times that the period following that phrase in the official version of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives was not there in the original text penned by Thomas Jefferson.

According to The Wire, Allen argues that it matters because the period at that point in the Declaration of Independence implies a hierarchy between what is before and what follows the period, and that Jefferson’s intent was to put the concept of the role of government on equal standing with individual 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,” according to Allen. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Here is the text of the Declaration of Independence, according to the National Archives:

“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.”

Ms. Allen maintains that it is an ink spot on the original parchment. If it had been intended to be a period, there would be more ink in that spot, according to a manuscripts curator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Heather Wolfe. With other periods in the Declaration, says Wolfe, “you can tell, the quill was held down and more ink came out.”

Period In Declaration Of Independence

The controversial period has gone largely unnoticed by scholars and government officials alike for most of American history.

Two years ago, professor Danielle Allen began research for her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which was published last week by Liveright. She analyzed more than 70 versions of the Declaration of Independence and discovered that, in many of the early versions, the period is not there, yet it is present in the National Archives version.

Most notably, no period follows “Happiness” in Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft that he took to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams for editing before presenting the Declaration of Independence to the committee. Nor was the period in the broadside that Philadelphia printer John Dunlap printed of the Declaration for Congress on July 4, 1776.

It was, however, present in the Declaration of Independence broadside “that Congress commissioned from the Baltimore printer Mary Katherine Goddard in January 1777, for distribution to the states.”

By the early 1800s, the original Declaration of Independence parchment was fading. Engraver William Stone worked for three years to create the 1823 copperplate that has formed the basis for most modern reproductions of the Declaration of Independence. His version, and therefore, most modern copies thereof, contains the controversial period.

At present, the original parchment is housed in a bulletproof glass case stabilized with argon gas at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. The Declaration of Independence text is almost illegible.

Parchment Of Declaration Of Independence

Though Allen ascribes great importance to the issue of the period to the meaning of the text, it may not actually be that significant. English teachers have often led students to believe that punctuation rules are immutable laws of the universe, like the law of gravity. But the rules of punctuation have evolved and changed over time, just like the English language itself has.

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Even a cursory reading of the Declaration of Independence reveals that the current rules of spelling and capitalization obviously were not in place in 1776. Uniformity of spelling and punctuation was not a requirement of the early American documents. Allen’s concern over the period may actually be “much ado about nothing.”

The sentence structure contains a series of five phrases each beginning with the word “that.” Today, we would likely bullet point them after the initial sentence and remove some of the capitalization, like this:

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.

Because the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, were integral parts in dissolving the bands tying the colonies to the crown, as well as in formulating the new system of government for the United States of America, it is logical that they would have perceived that the role of government in securing the unalienable rights for the people to be one of the “self-evident” truths.

The parallel sentence structure is not likely, as Allen asserts, to be an argument for big government. It is more likely to have been an acknowledgement of the reality that government does indeed play a role in securing the rights that the people already possess, by virtue of being human.

The Declaration of Independence was, and remains, a document of freedom from tyranny, whether from another nation, or our own. No juggling of periods or other punctuation will make it less than that. And never should any of its content be used by any person, force, or government as a justification for tyranny. The intent of the Declaration of Independence is, indeed, liberty. Period.

[images via bing and National Archives]