It’s a document every American can recognize, and one that stirs national pride and identity. Engrossed (written in a large and readable script) on parchment, with the clear signature of John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin and 54 others, the image of the Declaration of Independence is familiar to all of us.
But did you know that the written and signed document on parchment is not the original copy of July 4th, 1776?
Following several drafts of the Declaration by young Thomas Jefferson and the Committee of Five, appointed by the Congress, the Congress debated the final version for three days beginning on Monday, July 2nd. It was unanimously adopted by the colonies represented and signed by President of the Congress John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson. Congress then ordered the Committee of Five that included Benjamin Franklin, to have the document printed so “that copies of the declaration be sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops; that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the Army.” Jefferson and Franklin most likely were the ones to take that amended document to the printing shop of John Dunlap, the official printer for the Congress.
Dunlap’s shop at 48 Market Street was only blocks away from the Pennsylvania State House. Feverishly through the afternoon and evening of July 4th, Dunlap handset in type the words that would form a new nation. Ironically, the Declaration was set in the typeface called Caslon, the most popular typeface in all of
England and one very familiar to the King. By late evening and into the following morning, between 100 and
200 copies of the Declaration had been printed by Dunlap on paper. It was Dunlap’s broadside printing of the Declaration that was distributed throughout the colonies, informing the new citizens of the fledgling nation they were now a part of. As a printed document in multiple copies, it was to ensure that every colony was to read the same text, without change or alteration. It was read aloud from state houses, meeting rooms and churches. Whether you could read or not, you would have heard the great announcement of America’s independence. Even two copies made it back to England, ennsuring the King himself would read the Declaration by his now former colonists: Vice-Admiral Lord Howe in August from his ship in the harbor of Staten Island.
On July 17th, the Second Continental Congress ordered that a copy of the Declaration be engrossed on parchment. Commonly thought to be the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson, the beautiful penmanship is credited to Timothy Matlack of Pennsylvania, assistant to Congress Secretary Thomson. It was on this document that the 56 Founders affixed their signatures. The names of those fifty-six men were relatively unknown by the general public until the Declaration was again officially printed as a broadside after January 18th, 1777, by Mary Katharine Goddard, a woman printer and publisher in Maryland. Goddard’s broadside has the names of each signer set in type rather than as a facsimile of their signature. Copies of this version were sent to each state. Only eight have survived, as have twenty-five copies of the original Dunlap broadside. And despite the popularity of the movie “National Treasure,” the engrossed copy on parchment is still securely held by the National Archives.
Following the printing in January of 1776 of Thomas Paine’s book, Common Sense, a bestselling book that united the colonies in opposition to the tyrannical King of England, the printing of the Declaration of Independence is the next most important printed document to emanate from the presses in America. And as a document that has been printed over and over again, the Declaration continues to inspire and motivate individuals throughout the world. Printing, the “Art Preservative of All Arts,” proved to be a pivotal tool in establishing our great democracy, and the printed word will remain one of the linchpins for freedom in our civilization.