Printing the Declaration of Independence

Today I saw a brief news article which claimed that a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence had been found by a man from Pennsylvania.  This find, if authenticated, would be the second known copy made with the anastatic printing process, a process which uses acid to transfer text, rom the copy of the Declaration which now resides and the US Nation Archives.

For a copy of the article click here.

However, since this week 235 years ago the Declaration was first signed, and since I am currently writing about Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the original signers, I think this is an appropriate moment to spent some time thinking about how the first few editions of the Declaration of Independence were produced.

The image of the Declaration of Independence that most of us have, is of a handwritten document. Photographs, television and movies have made sure that most Americans at least are fairly familiar with this version of the text.  Our image is of the text which is currently in the National Archives, the one which may now have a new copy.  This was how the document would have been presented to King George; however most people in the eighteenth century would have only seen a copy of the document in its printed form.

The first edition of the Declaration was printed by John Dunlap in Baltimore.  Dunlap was the official printer for the Continental Congress, but he also published a newspaper in Baltimore, Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette.  Dunlap was originally from Strabane, Ireland, but had been apprenticed as a printer under his uncle William Dunlap in Philadelphia.  Though nominally located in Baltimore during the 1770s, Dunlap followed the Continental Congress, so his imprints appear from several locations.

Though the first edition of the Declaration was produced by an Irishman, the first official edition of the document was printed by a woman.  Mary Katherine Goddard was also a printer in Baltimore, and Dunlap’s main competition.  There she ran the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser and the post office for her brother William Goddard.  Originally from Connecticut, Goddard was well-known and respected as a printer.  It is likely that she was given the contract to print the official version due to her brother’s connections.  William Goddard was at the time trying to set up a new American postal system, independent of the British.

The Declaration was very quickly printed as a one page broadside by printers up and down the American coast.  This format retained many of the visual features of the hand-written document, which was written in a fairly standard format for official petitions.  The broadside was useful both for personal reading and for posting up for public consumption.  The format was cheap and quick to reproduce.  For those who did not have access to the broadside, the text of the Declaration was widely re-printed in newspapers.

In an interesting side note, the first newspaper to reprint the Declaration outside America was the Belfast News-Letter.  Though it is not quite
clear how the Belfast printers got their copy of the document, there is one very plausible theory.  John Dunlap could have very easily sent copies of his edition of the Declaration to his relatives in Strabane or even directly to the News-letter’s editor in Belfast.  This is probably the only way that the News-Letter would have had time to print their copy before the London newspapers.

Though the Declaration of Independence was written by a Virginian in Philadelphia, it was some unlikely provincial printers who first made it available to the average American as a printed broadside.  Next time you think of the Declaration, try to imagine it not as a hand-written document, but as a contemporary reader would have seen it, as a printed one.

Printed Broadside 1776


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