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Published:July 7th, 2014 11:43 EST
Is There an Error in Grammar in the Declaration of Independence?

Is There an Error in Grammar in the Declaration of Independence?

By Ron G Anselm

"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,......." (Declaration of Independence, Second Continental Congress, 1776)

I was browsing the Internet and came across a very interesting article that is in the tradition with the Fourth of July. It seems there has been a debate going on for some time now as to if there is a major punctuation error in the original document written by our forefathers, the main one being Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence.

If you look at the above `Thesis Statement` you will see the error in question. I won`t tell you where the debated error is in the `Thesis Statement` until later in this article. Keep looking at the statement and see if you can pick out the possible punctuation error.

Danielle Allen who is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey has picked out the mistake from the original transcript of the Declaration of Independence that now has a permanent home in the National Archives Institute in Washington, D.C.  And is more heavily guarded than the once housed gold bars at Fort Knox.

Ahhh heck, why not just point out where the error is in the document if you haven`t found it already instead of leaving you hanging and tell you and the end of this article. If you look at the above `Thesis Statement,` look at the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." There is a period after happiness and then the phrase continues....

 Here is the complete paragraph:

"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."

So, if you read the thought flow of this paragraph, should there be a period after Happiness? Or, to bring the meaning of this paragraph into one thought, should all the breaks in thought and hesitation in paragraph be separated by commas or semi-colons to make the intent of this paragraph flow into one thought and keep in complete unity of the communication and intent for what the meaning is really intended to be?

Also, I just noticed as I am writing this article that if the above paragraph is indeed taken from the original document of the Declaration of Independence that there is also another mistake when it comes to the verb tense at the last sentence of the paragraph. Look at the word effect " at the bottom of the paragraph and how it is more than likely intended to be used in the thought flow. Shouldn`t it read affect "their Safety and Happiness" not effect "their Safety and Happiness"? If this is actually taken from the original document and no writer re-wrote this statement then it is more than likely another error in grammar. This is another possible issue for another time if it is questioned, so let`s get back to the mystery of the period that should or should not be there.

So, why is this reluctant period being questioned by scholars in the part of the paragraph in their opinion that probably should not exist? It all comes down to intent and possible misunderstanding of the document.

According to Danielle Allen, the period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, "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. (Allen, D.)

 Also, you have another question here, since the original document of the Declaration of Independence is so old and deteriorated to the point it is almost unreadable, could the mystery period really be a period at all? It could also be a blot of ink appearing to be an intended period or maybe just over the years the document just took on an appearance of whatever and with the aging of the paper it is written on the period may also be the product of just the again of the document. With anything that is this old including people (if people could live to be this old) you get age spots and spots and anything appearing on paper in general. So, could the mystery or ghost period really just be something else and is the product of just normal wear and tear or aging?

Since there are also multiple copies out there of the Declaration of Independence another excerpt of this document was taken from the National Archives and another scholar is arguing that this version or copy taken that the period after the pursuit of happiness shown in an 1823 engraving " does not appear on the 1776 parchment original. Interesting?

Danielle Allen added to this as to why this is such a big deal by stating the reasoning of if there really is a period existing in the original document by saying, The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights. You lose that connection when the period gets added. " (Allen, D.)

So, there you have it. It all comes down to reasoning and intent as we the people read and interpret the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  The article questioning the use of the so called mystery period goes on to say, Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen`s research say she has raised a serious question.

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`? " said Jack Rakove, a historian at Stanford and a member of the National Archives` Founding Fathers Advisory Committee. You could make the argument without the punctuation, but clarifying it would help. " (Schuessler, J., New York Times)

This is still on on-going issue and other versions of the Declaration of Independence are being reviewed to see if there really is a punctuation error in the original version of this document. My question is, if it does turn out to be an error in punctuation and there really is not supposed to be a period where Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. " Is in this paragraph; what are we really going to do about it? Does it really matter? Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and take the period out of that paragraph? I doubt it.

To me, if our forefathers and especially Thomas Jefferson did say brainfart and put a period where it is not supposed to be, so be it. The value of the Declaration of Independence would then be no value you could put on the original document of the Declaration of Independence and the original document would then become priceless "

                                                                            Reference

SCHUESSLER, J., 2014, New York Times, If Only Thomas Jefferson Could Settle the Issue. A Period Is Questioned in the Declaration of Independence, (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/03/us/politics/a-period-is-questioned-in-the-declaration-of-independence.html). Retrieved 2014.

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