A copy of the Declaration of Independence at the New York Public Library, in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting, with “inalienable rights” rather than “unalienable rights,” as it appears in the final version.  (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A grammar lesson for the Fourth of July:

The final version of the Declaration of Independence declares: “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.”

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.”


The Jefferson Memorial in Washington.  (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But the Declaration, as printed under the order of Congress, says “unalienable,” according to ushistory.org, a Web site of the nonprofit Independence Hall Association.

President Obama, according to grammarphobia.com, has used both:

In his Inaugural Address on Jan 21, 2013, he referred to “unalienable rights,” but in remarks about gun violence on Jan 16, 2013, he used the phrase “inalienable rights.”

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.