A Brief History of the Printing of the Declaration of Independence
This article was originally published by Printing Impressions on July 3, 2018.
Growing up, I believed the Declaration of Independence to be a singular, definitive document, created and signed on July 4, 1776, which was destined to go down as one of the most important pieces of history known to mankind. I couldn't have been more wrong. Although there is a version of the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, with copies printed and distributed, there is a much more complicated history.
On the night of July 4, 1776, it was reported that a member of the Committee of Five arrived at John Dunlap's Philadelphia-based print shop and asked him to print an estimated 200 copies of the first broadside - now referred to as the Dunlap Broadside - of the Declaration of Independence, according to Harvard University's Declaration Resources Project. The Dunlap Broadside was to be distributed to the 13 colonies to inform them of "the sea change in their political affairs," according to the New York Public Library.
Now, 243 years later, there are only 25 known copies left — including one "proof" copy. Copies are held at locations across the country, including at Yale University, the New York Public Library and Independence National Historical Park, as well as a few copies in London.
The New York Public Library also points out the original print run had to be substantial in size because the verified copies were printed on four different paper stocks:
Most, of course, were lost through their intended use: whether pasted up in the open for public inspection and subjected to the elements, or carried around in good and bad weather for public readings and repeatedly rolled or folded.
Although the Dunlap Broadside was the fist official printing of the Declaration of Independence we have come to know, there were many rough drafts printed beforehand and multiple versions afterward. Interestingly, the Dunlap Broadside only includes the signatures of John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson. This was due to the fact that simply signing the document was considered an act of treason against the British government, resulting in possible execution, according to Women You Should Know.
It wasn't until January 1777, when all of the signatories — except Thomas McKean — were included in a version called the Goddard Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, which was printed by Mary Katherine Goddard, a printer and postmaster. It is known that there were fewer copies of the Goddard Broadside printed and, as of 1949, there are only nine known copies left. The New York Public Library has a copy of the Goddard broadside — and it has also been digitized. Click here to view and learn more about it.
Small changes continued throughout the 1700s and 1800s, according to the Harvard University project:
Almost every version of the Declaration of Independence printed or written in 1776 was different from the next in terms of punctuation, capitalization, or errors. This continued through book printings and newspaper re-printings in the late 18th and 19th century.
Regardless of the variances, it's one of the most influential documents ever created. The official Declaration of Independence resides in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington. A copy of the Dunlap Broadside is now on display at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in a temporary display until July 11, with a public reading of the Declaration to be held on Friday, July 5.
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