Physical history of the United States Declaration of Independence

Physical history of the United States Declaration of Independence
The signed, engrossed copy of the Declaration, now badly faded, is on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

The United States Declaration of Independence, which announced that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain were no longer a part of the British Empire, exists in a number of drafts, handwritten copies, and published broadsides.


Drafts and pre-publication copies

Composition Draft

The Composition Draft

The earliest known version of the Declaration of Independence is a fragment known as the "Composition Draft".[1] The draft, written in June 1776, is in the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration. It was discovered in 1947 by historian Julian P. Boyd in the Jefferson papers at the Library of Congress. Boyd was examining primary documents for publication in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson when he found the document, a piece of paper that contains a small part of the text of the Declaration, as well as some unrelated notes made by Jefferson.[2] Prior to Boyd's discovery, the only known draft of the Declaration had been a document known as the "Rough Draft" (below). The discovery confirmed speculation by historians that Jefferson must have written more than one draft of the text.[2]

Many of the words from the Composition Draft were ultimately deleted by Congress from the final text of the Declaration. Phrases from the fragment to survive the editing process include "acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation" and "hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends".[2]

Forensic examination has determined that the paper of the Composition Draft and the paper of the Rough Draft were made by the same manufacturer.[3] In 1995, conservators at the Library of Congress undid some previous restoration work on the fragment and placed it in a protective mat. The document is stored in a cold storage vault. When it is exhibited, the fragment is placed in a temperature and humidity controlled display case.[3]

Rough Draft

The first page of Jefferson's rough draft.

Thomas Jefferson preserved a four-page draft that late in life he called the "original Rough draught".[4][5] Known to historians as the Rough Draft, early students of the Declaration believed that this was a draft written alone by Jefferson and then presented to the drafting committee. Scholars now believe that the Rough Draft was not actually an "original Rough draught", but was instead a revised version completed by Jefferson after consultation with the committee.[4] How many drafts Jefferson wrote prior to this one, and how much of the text was contributed by other committee members, is unknown.

Jefferson showed the Rough Draft to Adams and Franklin, and perhaps other committee members,[4] who made a few more changes. Franklin, for example, may have been responsible for changing Jefferson's original phrase "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident".[6] Jefferson incorporated these changes into a copy that was submitted to Congress in the name of the committee. Jefferson kept the Rough Draft and made additional notes on it as Congress revised the text. He also made several copies of the Rough Draft without the changes made by Congress, which he sent to friends, including Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe, after July 4. At some point in the process, Adams also wrote out a copy.[4]

Fair Copy

In 1823, Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison in which he recounted the drafting process. After making alterations to his draft as suggested by Franklin and Adams, he recalled that "I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the Committee, and from them, unaltered, to Congress."[7] If Jefferson's memories were correct, and he indeed wrote out a fair copy which was shown to the drafting committee and then submitted to Congress on June 28, this document has not been found.[8] "If this manuscript still exists," wrote historian Ted Widmer, "it is the holy grail of American freedom."[9]

The Fair Copy was presumably marked up by secretary Charles Thomson while Congress debated and revised the text.[10] This document was the one that Congress approved on July 4, making it what Boyd called the first "official" copy of the Declaration. The Fair Copy was sent to be printed under the title "A Declaration by the Representatives of the united states of america, in General Congress assembled". Boyd argued that if a document was signed in Congress on July 4—which he thought unlikely—it would have been the Fair Copy, and probably would have been signed only by John Hancock and Thomson.[11]

The Fair Copy may have been destroyed in the printing process,[12] or destroyed during the debates in accordance with Congress's secrecy rule.[13]


The Declaration was first published as a broadside printed by John Dunlap of Philadelphia. One broadside was pasted into Congress's journal, making it what Boyd called the "second official version" of the Declaration.[14] Dunlap's broadsides were distributed throughout the thirteen states. Upon receiving these broadsides, many states issued their own broadside editions.[15]

Dunlap broadside

Yale University's copy of the Dunlap broadside.

The Dunlap broadsides were the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence, printed on the night of July 4, 1776. It is unknown exactly how many broadsides were originally printed, but the number is estimated at about 200. John Hancock's eventually famous signature was not on this document; his name appeared in type under "Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress", with secretary Charles Thomson listed as a witness.

On July 4, 1776, Congress ordered the same committee charged with writing the document to "superintend and correct the press", that is, supervise the printing. Dunlap, an Irish immigrant then 29 years old, was tasked with the job; he apparently spent much of the night of July 4 setting type, correcting it, and running off the broadside sheets.[16]

"There is evidence it was done quickly, and in excitement — watermarks are reversed, some copies look as if they were folded before the ink could dry and bits of punctuation move around from one copy to another," according to Ted Widmer, author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World. "It is romantic to think that Benjamin Franklin, the greatest printer of his day, was there in Dunlap's shop to supervise, and that Jefferson, the nervous author, was also close at hand."[16] John Adams later wrote that, "We were all in haste."[16] The Dunlap broadsides were sent across the colonies over the next two days, including to George Washington, who directed that the Declaration be read to the troops. Another copy was sent to England.[16]

In 1949, 14 copies of the Dunlap broadside were known to exist.[15] The number had increased to 21 by 1975.[17] There were 24 known copies of the Dunlap broadside in 1989, when another was discovered behind a painting bought for four dollars at a flea market. In June 2000, Norman Lear and a partner purchased the document at an online Sotheby's auction for $8.14 million. Lear sent the document around the United States with the Independence Road Trip and Declare Yourself.[16]

On July 2, 2009, it was announced that a 26th Dunlap broadside was discovered in The National Archives in Kew, England. It is currently unknown how this copy came to the archive, but one possibility is that it was captured from an American coastal ship intercepted during the War of Independence.[18][19]

List of extant Dunlap broadsides

# Location Owner Notes Reference
1 New Haven, Connecticut Beinecke Library, Yale University [16]
2 Bloomington, Indiana Lilly Library, Indiana University previous owner was Henry N. Flynt of Greenwich, Connecticut. [16]
3 Portland, Maine Maine Historical Society given to the society in 1893 at the bequest of John S. H. Fogg. [16]
4 Chicago, Illinois Chicago Historical Society signed by John Steward (1747–1829) of Goshen, New York; sold July 2, 1975, at auction, by Christie's, London; later sold to the Chicago Historical Society. [16]
5 Baltimore, Maryland Maryland Historical Society fragment of upper left area of the document, including the first 36 lines. [16]
6 Boston, Massachusetts Massachusetts Historical Society [16]
7 Cambridge, Massachusetts Houghton Library, Harvard University donated in 1947 by Carleton R. Richmond. [16]
8 Williamstown, Massachusetts Williams College previously owned by the Wood family; sold at auction, April 22, 1983, by Christie's, New York. [16]
9 Princeton, New Jersey Scheide Library, Firestone Library, Princeton University currently owned by William R. Scheide; bought by John H. Scheide from A. S. W. Rosenbach. [16]
10 New York, New York
(last known location)
Private collector sold by the New York Historical Society to a private collector in the United States. [16]
11 New York, New York New York Public Library [16]
12 New York, New York Morgan Library once owned by the Chew family; sold April 1, 1982, at auction at Christie's, New York. [16]
13 Exeter, New Hampshire American Independence Museum copy discovered in 1985 in the Ladd-Gilman House in Exeter. [16]
14 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania American Philosophical Society acquired from the Library of Congress in 1901 in a trade for Benjamin Franklin's Passy imprint of The Boston Independent Chronicle "Supplement." [16]
15 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Historical Society of Pennsylvania fragment including the first 32 lines, thought to be likely an uncorrected proof, from the Frank M. Ketting collection; Ketting asserted it was this document that had been read in public. However, Charles Henry Hart wrote in 1900: "The endorsement is in the handwriting of the late Frank M. Etting, who died insane, one of the most inexact and inaccurate of collectors." [16]
16 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Independence National Historic Park previously owned by Col. John Nixon, appointed by the sheriff of Philadelphia to read the Declaration of Independence to the public on July 8, 1776, in the State House yard; presented to the park by his heirs in 1951. [16]
17 Dallas, Texas Dallas Public Library "The Leary Copy" discovered in 1968 amid the stock of Leary's Book Store of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a crate that had been unopened since 1911. Ira G. Corn Jr. and Joseph P. Driscoll of Dallas bought the manuscript on May 7, 1969. A group of 17 people later sold it to the Dallas city government. [16]
18 Charlottesville, Virginia University of Virginia 1/2. Found in 1955 in an attic in Albany, New York, where it had been used to wrap other papers. Bought by Charles E. Tuttle Company of Rutland, Vermont; later sold to David Randall, who sold it in 1956 to the university. [16]
19 Charlottesville, Virginia University of Virginia 2/2. "The H. Bradley Martin Copy"; exhibited at the Grolier Club in 1974; sold on January 31, 1990 to Albert H. Small, who gave it to the university. [16]
20 Washington, D.C. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division [16]
21 Washington, D.C. Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, Washington Papers fragment copy with 54 lines; thought to be the copy George Washington read to the troops on July 9, 1776, in New York. [16]
22 Washington, D.C. National Archives inserted into the Continental Congress manuscript journal, previously attached with a seal. [16]
23 Roving copy Norman Lear Found in the back of a picture frame bought at a yard sale for $4.00 at an Adamstown, Pennsylvania, flea market; now owned by a consortium which includes Norman Lear; sold in 2000 for $8.14 million; previously sold for $2.42 million on June 4, 1991. [20][21]
24 London, United Kingdom The National Archives, Colonial Office Papers General William Howe and Vice Admiral Richard Howe from the flagship Eagle, off Staten Island, sent this copy with a letter dated August 11, 1776, which stated, "A printed copy of this Declaration of Independency came accidentally to our hands a few days after the dispatch of the Mercury packet, and we have the honor to enclose it." [16]
25 London, United Kingdom The National Archives, Admiralty Papers Vice Admiral Richard Howe sent this copy from the flagship Eagle, then "off Staten Island" with a letter dated July 28, 1776. [16]
26 London, United Kingdom The National Archives, Colonial Office Papers Discovered in box of documents in 2008. Exact provenance is currently unknown. [18][19]

Goddard broadside

The Goddard broadside.

In January 1777, Congress commissioned Mary Katherine Goddard to print a new broadside that, unlike the Dunlap broadside, listed the signers of the Declaration.[22][23] With the publication of the Goddard broadside, the public learned for the first time who had signed the Declaration.[23] One of the eventual signers of the Declaration, Thomas McKean, is not listed on the Goddard broadside, suggesting that he had not yet added his name to the signed document at that time.

In 1949, nine Goddard broadsides were known to still exist. The reported locations of those copies at that time were:[24]

  1. Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.)
  2. Connecticut State Library (Hartford, Connecticut)
  3. Library of the late John W. Garrett
  4. Maryland Hall of Records (Annapolis, Maryland)
  5. Maryland Historical Society (Baltimore, Maryland)
  6. Massachusetts Archives (Dorchester, Massachusetts)
  7. New York Public Library (New York, New York)
  8. Library Company of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
  9. Rhode Island State Archives (Providence, Rhode Island)

Other broadsides

In addition to the broadsides authorized by Congress, many states and private printers also issued broadsides of the Declaration, using the Dunlap broadside as a source. In 1949, an article in the Harvard Library Review surveyed all the broadsides known to exist at that time and found 19 editions or variations of editions, including the Dunlap and Goddard printings. The author was able to locate 71 copies of these various editions.[15]

A number of copies have been discovered since that time. In 1971, a copy of a broadside probably printed in Salem, Massachusetts was discovered in the archives of Georgetown University.[25] In 2010, there were media reports that a copy of the Declaration was located in Shimla, India, having been discovered sometime during 1990s. The type of copy was not specified.[26]

Engrossed copy

National Bureau of Standards preserving the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence in 1951.

The copy of the Declaration that was signed by Congress is known as the engrossed or parchment copy. It was probably handwritten by clerk Timothy Matlack, and given the title of "The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America".[27]

Throughout the Revolutionary War, the engrossed copy was moved with the Continental Congress,[28] which relocated several times to avoid the British army. In 1789, after creation of a new government under the United States Constitution, the engrossed Declaration was transferred to the custody of the secretary of state.[28] The document was evacuated to Virginia when the British attacked Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812.[28]

After the War of 1812, the symbolic stature of the Declaration steadily increased even though the engrossed copy's ink was noticeably fading. In 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned printer William J. Stone to create an engraving essentially identical to the engrossed copy.[28] Stone's engraving was made using a wet-ink transfer process, where the surface of the document was moistened, and some of the original ink transferred to the surface of a copper plate, which was then etched so that copies could be run off the plate on a press. When Stone finished his engraving in 1823, Congress ordered 200 copies to be printed on parchment.[28] Because of poor conservation of the engrossed copy through the 19th century, Stone's engraving, rather than the original, has become the basis of most modern reproductions.[29]

From 1841 to 1876, the engrossed copy was publicly exhibited at the Patent Office building in Washington, D.C. Exposed to sunlight and variable temperature and humidity, the document faded badly. In 1876, it was sent to Independence Hall in Philadelphia for exhibit during the Centennial Exposition, which was held in honor of the Declaration's 100th anniversary, and then returned to Washington the next year.[28] In 1892, preparations were made for the engrossed copy to be exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but the poor condition of the document led to the cancellation of those plans and the removal of the document from public exhibition.[28] The document was sealed between two plates of glass and placed in storage. For nearly thirty years, it was exhibited only on rare occasions at the discretion of the secretary of state.[30]

In 1921, custody of the Declaration, along with the United States Constitution, was transferred from the State Department to the Library of Congress. Funds were appropriated to preserve the documents in a public exhibit that opened in 1924.[31] After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the documents were moved for safekeeping to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox in Kentucky, where they were kept until 1944.[32]

For many years, officials at the National Archives believed that they, rather than the Library of Congress, should have custody of the Declaration and the Constitution. The transfer finally took place in 1952, and the documents, along with the Bill of Rights, are now on permanent display at the National Archives in the "Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom". Although encased in helium, by the early 1980s the documents were threatened by further deterioration. In 2001, using the latest in preservation technology, conservators treated the documents and re-encased them in encasements made of titanium and aluminum, filled with inert argon gas.[33] They were put on display again with the opening of the remodeled National Archives Rotunda in 2003.


Publication information for sources mentioned in brief here can be found in the "References" section below.

  1. ^ Boyd, Papers of Jefferson, 1:421.
  2. ^ a b c Gerald Gawalt (July 1999). "Jefferson and the Declaration: Updated Work Studies Evolution of Historic Text". Information Bulletin. Library of Congress. Retrieved July 9, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Mark Roosa (July 1999). "Preservation Corner: Piecing Together Fragments of History". Information Bulletin. Library of Congress. Retrieved July 9, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d Boyd, "Lost Original", 446.
  5. ^ Kaufman, Mark (July 2, 2010). "Jefferson changed 'subjects' to 'citizens' in Declaration of Independence". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 3, 2010. 
  6. ^ Becker, Declaration of Independence, 142 note 1. Boyd (Papers of Jefferson, 1:427–28) casts doubt on Becker's belief that the change was made by Franklin.
  7. ^ Maier, 100.
  8. ^ Becker, 139.
  9. ^ Widmer.
  10. ^ Boyd, "Lost Original", 449.
  11. ^ Boyd, "Lost Original", 450.
  12. ^ Boyd, "Lost Original", 448–50.
  13. ^ Ritz, "From the Here", speculates that the Fair Copy was immediately sent to the printer so that copies could be made for each member of Congress to consult during the debate. All of these copies were then destroyed, theorizes Ritz, to preserve secrecy.
  14. ^ Boyd, "Lost Original", 452.
  15. ^ a b c Walsh, Michael J. "Contemporary Broadside Editions of the Declaration of Independence". Harvard University. Harvard Library bulletin. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Library. Volume III, Number 1 (Winter 1949), 31–43.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Illustration for Widmer, Ted, "Looking for Liberty", oped commentary article, The New York Times, July 4, 2008, accessed July 7, 2008
  17. ^ Boyd, "Lost Original", 453.
  18. ^ a b Katz, Gregory (July 2, 2009). "Rare Copy of Declaration of Independence Found". Associated Press. Huffington Post. Retrieved July 1, 2011. 
  19. ^ a b "Rare copy of United States Declaration of Independence found in Kew". The Daily Telegraph. July 3, 2009. Retrieved July 1, 2011. 
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ "The Declaration of Independence: A History". Charters of Freedom. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 1, 2011. 
  23. ^ a b Ann Marie Dube (May 1996). "The Declaration of Independence". A Multitude of Amendments, Alterations and Additions: The Writing and Publicizing of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States. National Park Service. Retrieved July 1, 2011. 
  24. ^ Ann Marie Dube (May 1996). "Appendix D". A Multitude of Amendments, Alterations and Additions: The Writing and Publicizing of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States. National Park Service. Retrieved July 12, 2011. 
  25. ^
  26. ^ "Copy of US Declaration found in Shimla". The Times Of India. April 1, 2010. Retrieved July 6, 2010. 
  27. ^ The engrossed copy of the Declaration renders the "u" in United States in small case, i.e. "united States", one of several variations in capitalization and punctuation that historians Boyd and Becker believed to be of no significance; Boyd, Evolution, 25–26. In his notes and Rough Draft, Jefferson capitalized variously as "United states" (Boyd, Papers of Jefferson, 1:315) and "United States" (ibid., 1:427).
  28. ^ a b c d e f g Gustafson, "Travels of the Charters of Freedom".
  29. ^ National Archives.
  30. ^ Malone, Story of the Declaration, 257.
  31. ^ "Charter of Liberties Finds a Home". New York Times Magazine: p. SM7. 1924-04-06. 
  32. ^ Malone, Story of the Declaration, 263.
  33. ^ "National Archives Press Release". Retrieved 2010-12-11. 


Further reading

  • Goff, Frederick R. The John Dunlap Broadside: the first printing of the Declaration of Independence. Washington: Library of Congress, 1976.

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