Unalienable vs. inalienable: A centuries-old debate, still unresolved

constitution language inalienable unalienable updated

Story highlights

  • Amid the gun debate, a question about language
  • Obama said "unalienable" -- but could he have meant or should he have said, "inalienable"?
  • Thomas Jefferson and, it seems, John Adams didn't agree

(CNN)With his new plan to curb gun violence already facing legal and political pushback, President Barack Obama on Tuesday made another decision that immediately set off a very different kind of debate.

In making his plea for further action, Obama allowed that Second Amendment rights are "important," but not, he said, any more so than the "right to a peaceful assembly" or "our unalienable right to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Both of the latter, the president insisted, had been "robbed" by mass shooters, first at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, then at schools and campuses in Virginia, California and Newtown, Connecticut.
    But as most zeroed in on the message behind his speech, eagle-eyed history buffs and language wonks were beset with another question.
    Are those rights "unalienable," as the President said -- or "inalienable," as we so often see, hear and read?
    To start, the words mean the same thing.
    "Inalienable" has gained a stronger foothold in modern times, but both appear without distinction on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website, which defines them as signifying that which is "incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred."
    As a historical matter, however, the story is a bit more difficult to pick apart.
    Though the final version of the Declaration of Independence, the one written on parchment and currently housed at the Department of State, uses "unalienable," there are existing copies and drafts with conflicting usage.
    According to ushistory.org, the nonprofit Independence Hall Association's website, shows, the confusion -- or, possibly, debate -- over the matter can be traced back to the late 18th century. In earlier versions, usually those drafted by or on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, the words appears as "inalienable."
    But Jefferson wasn't in charge of the final printing. That was his old pal John Adams.
    constitution language inalienable unalienable updated
    In a footnote, ushistory.org cites a 1922 article called "The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas," in which the author, Carl Lotus Becker, states: "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."
    The debate lingers and not just among the pedants. Obama himself seems aware of the conflict and has been careful to quote the Founding Fathers according to the official documents. But when he is only paraphrasing, as he did during another speech on gun violence in 2013, the President showed his preference.
    Obama said on Jan. 21, 2013, "As Americans, we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us."