THE BLOG
07/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Pursuing Happiness (Part 2) Declaration 101

Yesterday"s blog was the beginning of a week-long refresher course on the Declaration of Independence.

In the run-up to the nation's birthday, here are some more things you "need to know" about the Declaration of Independence and the men who created it.

  • It's not a "piece of paper." The original version of the Declaration was "engrossed" (a word for preparing an official document in a large, clear hand) on parchment (which is an animal skin, stretched and treated to preserve it). The Declaration was probably "engrossed" by Timothy Matlack, an assistant to Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress.
  • "Inalienable" or "unalienable"?

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.

Jefferson's drafts shows he wrote "inalienable." The parchment and printed versions use "unalienable."

According to The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style from Houghton Mifflin:

The unalienable rights that are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence could just as well have been inalienable, which means the same thing. Inalienable or unalienable refers to that which cannot be given away or taken away.

  • Why didn't George Washington sign?

Washington was otherwise engaged. At the moment that the Congress voted on the Declaration, Washington was commanding his ragtag Continental Army in New York City, about 90 miles from Philadelphia. Washington had been appointed Commander of the Army in June 1775 and taken command in Boston. On July 9, 1776, he had the Declaration of Independence read aloud to his men. After hearing the Declaration read, a mob of enthusiastic New Yorkers tore down a statue of King George III in the Bowling Green and melted the lead for musket balls.

For Washington, the date of July 4 was bittersweet. In 1754, as the young and untested commander of a Virginia militia unit, he had been surrounded and forced to surrender by a French army in the Pennsylvania wilderness. Washington's surrender came after his men and some Native American allies attacked and massacred a group of French soldiers on a diplomatic mission. Washington's surrender included what was a "confession" of murdering a French diplomat and the incident helped sparked the Seven Years War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). This was the first and only time he surrendered in his military career. But the sting of that defeat must have made July 4th an unhappy anniversary for Washington for years to come.

  • How many Declarations are there?

The document, which was later lost, went to printer John Dunlap who prepared 25 copies of the Declaration of Independence on the night of July 4th. Their present location -- including two in England -- and more information on the history of the Declaration and its travels over the centuries can be found at the National Archives.