But these rights weren’t always “unalienable.” In early drafts of the Declaration — in the handwriting of its primary author, Thomas Jefferson, as well as another writer, John Adams — our rights were “inalienable.” The quote as inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in the nation’s capital, also says “inalienable.”
President Obama, according to grammarphobia.com, has used both:
What’s the difference in meaning? There isn’t any. Both refer to rights that cannot be taken away or transferred.
If you look up the definition of “unalienable” on dictionary.reference.com, you will find that the first definition, when the word is used as an adjective, is “inalienable.” It also says that British dictionary definitions for unalienable define it was “a variation of inalienable.”
How did inalienable in early drafts turn to unalienable in the final Declaration?
Ushistory.org cites a footnote in “The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas” by Carl Lotus Becker, published 1922:
The Rough Draft reads “[inherent &] inalienable.” There is no indication that Congress changed “inalienable” to “unalienable”; but the latter form appears in the text in the rough Journal, in the corrected Journal, and in the parchment copy. John Adams, in making his copy of the Rough Draft, wrote ” unalienable.” Adams was one of the committee which supervised the printing of the text adopted by Congress, and it may have been at his suggestion that the change was made in printing. “Unalienable” may have been the more customary form in the eighteenth century.