One of the most famous phrases in American history may have had its meaning changed by a wayward drop of ink. According to the scholar Danielle Allen, the National Archives’ copy of the Declaration of Independence has an error—a period right after the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That period, she says, has caused a “routine but serious misunderstanding” throughout history, thinking that the sentence ends there. In fact, it continues with “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The difference, she argues, is that “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.” The errant period apparently does not exist on other copies, including Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft. As a result of Allen’s work, the National Archives is considering changes to its online presentation of the Declaration.
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