The History of The Declaration of Independence

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It was in August of 1775, a proclamation so declared that the colonists, still being the King’s subjects were engaged in an open and affirmed rebellion. Parliament in 1775 passed the American Prohibitory Act, making all American vessels and their cargo forfeit to the Kind. The colonists watching the events coming from England became convinced the King treated the colonies a separate entity from its mother land. Each colony slowing began to cut their ties to England through the Continental Congress, whereby in March of 1776 they passed the Privateering Resolution, allowing colonists “to fit out armed vessels to cruise on the enemies of these United Colonies”. The colonists open their ports to foreign trade and commerce with other nations, severing ties of the Navigation Act, on May the 10th, 1776, the Resolution for the Formation of Local Governments was passed. The colonists were on their way to independence.

The colonists were slowly being convinced independence be the rightful conclusion. Thomas Paine wrote and had published in January of 1776, Common Sense and sold thousands of copies. By May of 1776, there were at least eight colonies supporting the idea of declaring independence. The Virginia Convention on May 15th of 1776 passed a resolution so stating “the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states.” Richard Lee on June 7th , 1776 presented his resolution, there were some colonies that supported resolving their differences with England postponing a vote on Lee’s resolution. On June 11th it was considered in the Continental Congress, a vote of seven to five, New York abstained; postponed the vote as congress was recessing. Since it they assumed the resolution would pass, a committee of five being then appointed to draft a statement, declaring independence.

The Committee of Five, consisted of John Adams of Massachusetts, Robert Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. In Jefferson’s words from his writings in 1823, Jefferson wrote, "unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught [sic]. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections. . . I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress." John Adams was later asked why he did not write the document and what why he told Jefferson to author it; his answer: "Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can." Jefferson on June 11th 1776 set out to write the declaration.

Jefferson sat in his room at the room house where he lived, the weather was hot; his lap desk set in front of him, with no books or writings before him, only his knowledge retained through his extensive readings he set his pen to paper. According to records, Jefferson formed on draught which he presented to Adams and Franklin for review, changes were made upon the document and he then rewrote it with changes which was then presented to the Continental Congress on July 1st, 1776. It was at this time Congress met again after a three-week recess, Lee’s resolution was passed, 12 to 1, New York not voting; Congress then immediately began its discussion of the declaration. Jefferson’s document was submitted with the changes made by Adam’s and Franklin, the Congress then made additions and deletions; upon the morning of July 4th , 1776 the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted, whereas the church bells rang out signifying the adoption. From what we can surmise through writings and documents existing, Jefferson wrote upon the his copy, with alterations by Adams and Franklin in Jefferson’s hand, bracketed phrases are those deleted by Congress, this was labeled ‘Rough Draft’ by Jefferson, such remained in Jefferson’s papers till his death. Sometime before it was adopted, Jefferson set a copy of the declaration without Congress’ changes to Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe, these copies exist in archival libraries at the American Philosophical Society and in the Emmet Collection of the New York Public Library, another copy resides in the Washburn Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, being sent to either John Page or Edmund Pendleton by Jefferson. In 1783 Jefferson sent to Madison a copy made from his notes of the debates in Congress, Jefferson kept a draft of the Madison copy in his papers, John Adams made a copy of the draft before submitting to Congress, surviving today in the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The final draft taken to John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, also being the official printer for the Continental Congress, it is perhaps what many believe was the ‘fair copy’ of the rough draft but it is not proven what copy was given to Dunlap, it is known the rough draft with Adams and Franklin changes did survive; however the draft with changes made by Congress did not. The Dunlap copies delivered to Congress, then dispatched to assemblies, conventions, committees and Commanders, Congress keeping one for their journal approving it of July 4th. No one knows for sure just how many John Dunlap printed however over time only 26 known copies have surfaced, these are known as the ‘Dunlap Broadside’. Each ends with, ‘signed by the Order and Behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President. Attest Charles Thomson Secretary’ and measures 14 inches by 18 inches on what they call, chain laid paper of Dutch origin, imported probably from England. ‘They are not signed by other members of congress, there is said one broadside was actually signed in pen by John Hancock and Charles Thomson, yet this has not survived or ever been found. Broadsides were a method of the time to spread word or news of an important event all people need know, such Broadsides drawn up and printed then dispatched for public viewing in colonies; therefore, the Dunlap Broadside was the reasonable, common method of dispatching the news of the Declaration of Independence.

New York, on July 9th 1776 approved the Congressional action, all 13 colonies now unanimously signified approval. Congress ordered out an engrossed copy on July 19th. It was to have the title, ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America. ‘ Once finished, the engrossed copy, be signed by all members of the Continental Congress. The engrossing process is one of preparing an official document in large, clear pen, to which Timothy Matlack was most likely the engrosser of our Declaration of Independence. It is known, Matlack worked with Charles Thomson, secretary to the Congress; and had, in fact, written George Washington’s commission to the Continental Army, no doubt it was he that then penned the declaration. The engrossed copy was 24 ½ by 29 ¾ inches on parchment.

On August 2nd 1776, the Declaration of Independence, having been engrossed, was set out to be signed. John Hancock being the President of the Congress, was first to sign the document, followed by to the right of Hancock’s bold signature at the center, the signatures were so arranged by each colony the signers resided, northern colonies first to the southern colonies last. Not all signers signed on August 2nd, Elbridge Gerry, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, Oliver Wolcott and Matthew Thornton, the latter was unable to sign with his fellow New Hampshire delegates. According to the July 19th order by Congress, instructing the engrossed copy, ‘be signed by every member of Congress’, not all did sign it. John Dickinson insisted reconciliation was still a viable solution and Robert Livingston thought the declaration was being too hasty, he was also on the committee of five to draft the declaration.

After the signing, the document was filed with Thomson, the secretary for the Congress, on December 12th 1776, threatened by the British, Congress moved to Baltimore, MD and reconvened 8 days later. The Declaration rolled, moved with them by wagon with other important and necessary articles. While in Baltimore, on January 18, 1777, Congress, confident of the successes at Trenton and Princeton, ordered a second official printing of the declaration. The first printing, the Dunlap Broadside, had only John Hancock and Charles Thomson names, mostly due to secrecy and security for the delegates that did sign it; the second printing was to have all signatures affixed. This copy is known as the Katherine Goddard from Baltimore, caused 13 copies printed;   the copy was done in Caslon font, on cotton-rag paper, laid out in two columns, measuring 16 by 21 inches. It stayed there until March of 1777 when it was returned to Philadelphia. On September 27th the declaration moved again to Lancaster, PA, for one day, then moved to the courthouse at York, PA from September 30th to June of 1778. From there it moved and stayed at Philadelphia from July of 1778 to June of 1783, whereupon in 1783 it moved to Princeton, NJ from that June to November. After the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the declaration moved again to Annapolis, MD, staying there until October of 1784. It moved to Trenton, again, for the months of November and December of 1784 where it moved to New York in 1785 where Congress convened, being then stored at the New York City Hall and did so remain until 1790.

During its course of stay at New York, secretary to the Congress, Charles Thomson retired and surrendered his duties and the declaration to Roger Alden, Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs. In September 1789, the name of the department was changes to Department of State. Thomas Jefferson being appointed the first Secretary of the State, returned home from France to assume this duty, the duties of the Secretary of State included the custody of the Declaration.

In July of 1790, Congress provided a new permanent capital of the new nation be built, the chosen location was along the Potomac River, now Washington D.C; meanwhile Congress moved to Philadelphia, whereas, the declaration returned also, being then housed in several locations within Philadelphia.

When in 1800, by direction of John Adams, then President, the Declaration moved from Philadelphia to the newly built federal capital, along with other government records of the time. The Declaration then went on its longest trip upon water, leaving Philadelphia down the Delaware River into the Bay, to the Atlantic Ocean, reaching the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River to Washington. The Declaration was housed in the building used for the Treasury Department; it stayed there for about 2 months then moved to one building of seven along Pennsylvania Avenue, until moved to Seventeenth Street at the War Office Building.

In August of 1814, being at war with England [War of 1812], seeing a British fleet in the Bay, then Secretary of State, James Monroe, observed the imminent threat to the capital city; and in doing so, directed clerk, Stephen Pleasonton, causing linen purchased be made into bags whereas all precious records including the Declaration, then put upon carts, be then taken up the Potomac River and to an empty gristmill owned by Edgar Patterson. Farmers, giving up their wagons for the use of moving the precious documents to Leesburg, VA. While on August 24, as the British attacked Washington, the Declaration and other documents were traveling to Leesburg. The Declaration remained save in a private home, where it stayed for weeks or until British troops left the area. In September of 1814, the Declaration returned. It was moved only twice, once for its trip back to Philadelphia for the centennial celebration and during World War II when it was housed at Fort Knox for security, now in Washington at the National Archives in Washington DC.

The Declaration of Independence many times had copies made; some commissioned, others were not. Many done by express permission of the government or commissioned by the government directly, are found, sold or retained in collections of archival libraries of universities, museums, historical societies or the government. The original is the original, there is one engrossed Declaration of independence, other copies done by permission or commission were limited in the numbers, they are considered original copies. These copies are known as the Dunlap Broadside [1776], the Katherine Goddard {1777], the Binns Copy [1819],the Tyler Copy [1819],the Eleazer Hunington copy [1820], the Stone copy [1823], the Peter Force copy [1833 procured, inserted in 1848],the Anastatic Fac-Simile copy (John Jay Smith) [1845], the London Peter Force copy [1855], the Ohman lithograph copy [1942, 1955], and the Ira Corn copy [ 1974]. There may be other copies, some with value, as original newspaper printings of original time, have surfaced and other important printings. The copies listed are among the most sought after and the most rare, all having small numbers in existence.

Please note, we will not herein reference the value of rare, copies, although rare original copies of the Declaration of Independence are important, it is the words within the document need receive our highest attention and reverence.