The Declaration of Independence

American independence from Great Britain was declared by means of a broadside printed by John Dunlap, an Irish immigrant, on the night of July 4, 1776, by vote of the Continental Congress immediately following its vote to approve the text of the Declaration. Copies were delivered to John Hancock, then President of the Congress, in the morning of July 5th, and sent by him to the state governors that day and on the 6th. Among these were the copies read by Colonel John Nixon from a platform in the yard behind the Pennsylvania statehouse on July 8th, and by George Washington to his troops in New York on July 9th. Viscount Admiral Richard Howe intercepted a copy and dispatched it to London on July 28th. A copy was also preserved by the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thompson, in his minutes book; and it was to this text that a scribe, commissioned by the Congress, turned when preparing the ceremonial manuscript copy of the Declaration on parchment, preserved at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which was signed by members of the Continental Congress on August 2, 1776. The printed Declaration of Independence thus predates the famous copy, signed by John Hancock et al., by nearly a month. The printed copy bears only the names, in type, of Hancock and Thompson on behalf of the Congress, and of the printer John Dunlap; it was the promulgation of an act of Congress and needed nothing more. The text of the ceremonial copy differs from that of the printed original only in its title: it became a “Unanimous Declaration” only later in July 1776, when New York State’s members of Congress changed their vote from abstention to the affirmative. It is interesting to note, when considering the Declaration of Independence, the often-cited “intent of the Founding Fathers”, and the high prices manuscripts by those who signed the ceremonial copy command in the marketplace, that some delegations to the Continental Congress changed between July 4 and August 2, 1776. Therefore some who voted to approve the Declaration of Independence had retired from Congress before the ceremonial copy was prepared, and so never signed, while some who signed on August 2nd had not been in Congress on July 4th and so never voted on that auspicious day. The Chapin Library’s copy of the Dunlap broadside is one of only twenty-six known to survive, including fragments, of perhaps one or two hundred printed (the precise number is not known). It is also one of the best preserved copies, and the only one to have a physical connection to someone who both voted for independence and signed the ceremonial Declaration: Joseph Hewes of North Carolina. Hewes somehow obtained a copy of the broadside from John Hancock – members of Congress do not seem to have received copies as a matter of course – and wrote on it a docket, “Declaration of Independence”. Hewes died three years later, but his papers survived. The Chapin Library was fortunate to be able to raise the necessary funds to buy the Hewes copy of the Declaration from Christie’s, New York, when it came on the market in April 1983.
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