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Does the Declaration of Independence have a typo that makes us selfish?

Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration, currently on display at the New York Public Library
Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration, currently on display at the New York Public Library
Andrew Burton

Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old when he was tasked to write the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in 1776, rendering entire generations of Americans slackers by comparison ever since. Jefferson at 33 boldly captured the will of a people frustrated with their absentee king and declared the equality of all men to be a truth powerful enough to abolish an unjust system of government; the rest of us are mostly trying to figure out how to set up our ETrade accounts.

America.

But there's a chance we've been reading the Declaration wrong for over 200 years. According to Danielle Allen, a professor of social science at the Institute of Advanced Study, the most common reproduction of the Declaration contains an extra period that changes the meaning of Jefferson's original words. "It's the difference between good government and bad government," she says.

Here's the version almost everyone knows:

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.

And here's the version where Allen says the period after "happiness" should actually be a comma:

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.

It's a very small difference, but Allen argues that it changes the construction of Jefferson's argument significantly. In the popular version with the period, there are only two self-evident truths: all men are created equal, and they're endowed with certain unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That's the foundation, and everything after that is an argument in service of abolishing British rule and starting over. "A lot of people just stop reading after 'pursuit of happiness,'" says Allen. "What do you lose if you stop reading?"

Change that period to a comma, though, and the list of self-evident truths suddenly grows much longer: all men are created equal; they're endowed with certain unalienable rights; governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed; when government becomes destructive, it's the right of the people to abolish it and create a new system most likely to bring them safety and happiness.

"When you read the whole sentence, all of those points are equally weighted," says Allen. "It moves from the individual to the collective, from me to we. There's a lot more responsibility we all have in building a government. It's not just what do I get, or what's in it for me. It highlights the obligation to participate at all levels." Lose the comma, and we're all just pursuing happiness without any regard for one another.

And there's more: the notion that power of government comes from the consent of the governed wasn't necessarily self-evident in 1776. England itself had only undergone the Glorious Revolution and adopted its Bill of Rights in 1689. Louis XIV ruled France as an absolute monarch until 1715; it took the French Revolution in 1789 to fully reject that idea. And Russian tsars ruled as absolute monarchs until the Russian revolution in 1905. The difference between a period and a comma is the difference between Jefferson simply arguing the case for American independence and Jefferson casting the American idea itself as a self-evident truth.

"Self-evident doesn't mean obvious," says Allen. The missing comma is required to create a syllogistic argument that starts with the basic premise of equality and builds into what she calls "the people's right and responsibility to build a government that supports their flourishing."

This is heavy stuff for a typo.

So what happened here? It's hard to say; the original Declaration on display at the National Archives is so faded it's impossible to simply read. But Allen says the period doesn't appear on that version, on Jefferson's rough draft on display at the Library of Congress, nor on any versions produced with approval of the Continental Congress in 1776. There's also no period on the version copied into Congress' official records at the time.

But the period does appear on a famous copperplate engraving of the Declaration created in 1823 by William Stone. If you've seen a copy of the Declaration of Independence, you've almost certainly seen one created from Stone's engraving, which took him three years to make. (It's also on display at the National Archives.) In her paper on the subject, Allen says the original Declaration was so faded by the time Stone started working that he just made "an honest mistake."

"Two other people tried to do engravings in the 1810s and they kind of made a hash of the punctuation," she says. "The document in all probability was quite illegible."

Two experts consulted by the New York Times agree that there's no period on the original document, although it's now so faded it's nearly impossible to tell with the naked eye alone. But there's hope this will get cleared up: after two years of lobbying from Allen, the National Archives told the Times that considering ways to safely re-examine the original document is a "top priority."

It must be said that this would be an excellent opportunity to examine the back for a treasure map.