Apparently, there is a new debate brewing in the halls of academia about a punctuation mark in the first paragraph of our country's most sacred document the Declaration of Independence. According to one scholar, the period, after the famous phase referring to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," was intended as a comma, not, as most commonly assumed, a period.
"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 "
In the scholar's opinion, that tiny nuance fundamentally alters the essence of the entire manuscript. It shows, she says, that the Founding Fathers intended to include creation of government as an equally unalienable right.
The debate is causing a polite commotion which might even call for opening the airtight vault at the National Archives where the original parchment is kept under heavy security.
But, to us, the exercise seems a bit silly -- not unlike the fevered parsing of the Second Amendment of the Constitution that some gun owners claim guarantees them unfettered access to automatic weapons.
The signers of the Declaration did not intend to create a document set in stone. They made it clear in the very next sentence that it was meant to be a roadmap, one that could be amended to reflect the young country's bright, but as yet unwritten, future.
"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 "
They sensed the world would change dramatically and in order to create a lasting foundation for their vision, they needed to allow room for interpretation.
Which is where you come in.
The country envisioned by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams was dependent upon an educated and involved electorate, hence our favorite phrase, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
The authors of America's Declaration of Independence could not have anticipated the ethical and legal questions raised by global environmental concerns, the Internet, genetic engineering or a host of other modern-day challenges. But they created a format that allowed successive generations to debate and form a new consensus "in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
That is what we are celebrating today, and every time we attend a public hearing, offer to run for public office or cast a ballot for new leadership.
The Declaration of Independence, signed 238 years ago today, is still inspiring, regardless of whether Happiness is followed by a comma or a period.