Revolutionary Words

I hope you all had a happy Fourth of July. Along with the festivities, laughter and—to be honest—some much needed sleep, I also spent some time thinking about…you guessed it…the lasting impact of paper.

I started to think about the value of paper and the documents printed on it. In the United States, one of our most valued pieces of paper is the Declaration of Independence. And, just for fun, I thought I’d share a couple of facts about the document that aren’t always taught in history class…facts I learned as I was enjoying some time off. The original document, dated July 4, 1776 was “engrossed” on parchment. Engrossing is the process of transcribing an official document in a large, clear hand. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, Timothy Matlack, a Quaker merchant and brewer from Pennsylvania, penned the original document in his service as Clerk to the Secretary of the Second Continental Congress. On the night of July 4th, copies of the Declaration were also printed so that they could be shared throughout the new United States of America. Known as the “Dunlap Broadside,” these copies were printed by John Dunlap from his shop near the corner of 2nd and Market Streets in Philadelphia. Historians believe about 200 copies were printed, but only 26 are still in existence (according to the National Archives and Records Administration). There are 21 owned by American institutions, 2 by British institutions and 3 by private owners. As a grammarian, I was interested to learn that both the final engrossed and subsequent printed broadside versions of the Declaration (edited by the Congress’ Committee of Five, including John Adams), use the word “unalienable.” However, three earlier draft versions in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson use the word “inalienable,” which is the term that modern dictionaries (and I) prefer. The Merriam Webster Dictionary believes that these two words are interchangeable. However, there’s ample discussion that unalienable vs. inalienable rights are slightly different. “Unalienable” rights (such as life, liberty and pursuit of happiness) are “gifts” from a creator and cannot be surrendered or taken. “Inalienable” rights are not inherent and can therefore be surrendered or transferred with consent of the one possessing such rights. Maybe that’s why Jefferson’s original rough draft actually used two modifiers: “from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable…” Multiple copies of The Declaration—on paper—have led to many deep discussions. And with that my celebration of independence is extended by the lasting impact of paper. Happy July!

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