They Risked Their Lives, Fortunes, and Honor, But the Rest is Up to Us

This Fourth of July weekend, there is new scholarship that suggests that the official transcription of the Declaration of Independence may bear a meaningful typographical error that does not appear on the original parchment or on other, early versions of the document.

The potential error relates to the punctuation we call a period, and it appears as follows in that revered first sentence of the second paragraph (in brackets):

“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….”

The potential error raises the question of whether the list of self-evident truths ends with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or whether it goes on to include the observations that follow.

For my part, I think the parallel structure of those first few lines—that, that, that—settles the question, but in the end, it may not matter. The truth is that the Declaration was a touchstone statement of a revolutionary political theory—democracy—that transferred power from kings, nobles, and clergy to common men and women. Whether it’s self-evident or not, the American charter declared that government was, in some real sense, the exception not the rule; that it was the product of a social contract entered into by free people; and that it was empowered by their consent. These tenets were groundbreaking, and even at the dawn of the 19th century, they were far from obvious to the rest of the world; just ask France. Whether self-evident or not, moreover, they are not self-executing, so they rely on each generation to honor and preserve them.

For the full text of the official transcription from the website of the National Archives and Records Administration, see here. For a wonderful oral reading of the Declaration by 45 visitors to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., go here. For a look at other momentous events that have occurred on July 4, see here. They include July 4, 1826, when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away fifty years to the day of the Declaration’s adoption.

 

 

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