NEW YORK - The Declaration of Independence is the great document of American history and one of the greatest documents in world history, but its early appearances remain a mystery to many. The popular image of all of delegates to the Continental Congress lining up on July 4, 1776, to put their signatures to the calligraphic parchment now preserved in the National Archives persists in the popular imagination. But in fact that version of the Declaration was not written out until August 2, 1776, and the last of the fifty-six signatures – that of Thomas McKean of Delaware – was not subscribed until 1781. Our auction of Fine Books and Manuscripts including Americana on June 19 features two different printings of the Declaration that preceded the celebrated signed copy.
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration, although he was just one of a committee of five appointed by the Congress to draft a declaration endorsing of Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee's resolution of June 7 "that these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent States.” (John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston of New York were the other members of the committee.)
LOT 100, THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. ESTIMATE $1,500,000–2,000,000.
After three days of debates, the full Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, and a handwritten copy (now lost) was taken to the printing shop of John Dunlap, the publisher of the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper and the official printer to Congress. Working through the night, Dunlap printed an edition of the Declaration in broadside format: that is, a single sheet of paper printed on one side only, and so appropriate for being posted for public readings. Copies of the Dunlap Declaration were distributed throughout the thirteen colonies and the world: on July 9, George Washington had a copy of Dunlap’s broadside read to his troops headquartered at New York and copies were delivered to the British government as well.
As copies of this first printing were distributed throughout the thirteen colonies, they were used as copy texts by local printers, who produced their own broadside editions, some in response to the resolutions of local legislative bodies and some simply to fulfill the public hunger for the Declaration. Including the Dunlap printing, thirteen broadside editions of the Declaration of Independence were printed during July and August 1776.
LOT 99, FIRST BOOK-FORM PRINTING OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. ESTIMATE $300,000–500,000.
Broadside editions were printed in Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and one of the most important of these is lot 100 in our upcoming sale: a brilliantly preserved copy of the authorized printing for Massachusetts, the colony that led the struggle for American Independence. This edition was printed in Salem about July 18–20 by Ezekial Russell, who like Dunlap, was a newspaper publisher. Russell printed the Declaration at the order of the Council of the Commonwealth, for which he was the official printer, and he clearly based it on a copy of Dunlap’s broadside which had reached Salem (estimate: $1,500,000–$2,000,000).
LOT 101, THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. IN CONGRESS, JULY 4TH, 1776. A DECLARATION BY THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, IN GENERAL CONGRESS ASSEMBLED. (LONDON, JULY 1776). ESTIMATE $8,000–12,000.
Even earlier than the official Massachusetts printing is the first appearance of the Declaration of Independence in book form, lot 99 in our auction. When Dunlap’s broadside began to appear throughout Philadelphia, the publisher Robert Bell – who was the first printer of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense – had on the press a pseudonymous pamphlet intended to influence delegates at Pennsylvania called The Genuine Principles of the Ancient Saxon, or English Constitution. Recognizing the great importance of the text, as well as its relevance to the pamphlet, Bell added a few pages and printed the Declaration as a virtual appendix, likely publishing it on July 8. This is almost certainly the finest copy extant and is bound with five other pamphlets from the American Revolution, including an early edition of Common Sense (estimate: $300,000–$500,000).
LOT 102, DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. IN CONGRESS JULY 4TH. 1776. THE UNANIMOUS DECLARATION OF THE THIRTEEN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. [PHILADELPHIA:] JOHN BINNS, 1819. ESTIMATE $3,000–5,000.
Our auction includes two further versions of the Declaration, one in the August 1776 issue of the London Lottery Magazine: or, Compleat Fund of Liberty, Political, and Commercial Knowledge, one of the earliest printings of the Declaration in Great Britain (lot 101, $8,000–$12,000); the other an elaborate decorative engraving from 1819 featuring facsimiles of the signatures on the parchment Declaration, medallion portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock, and the seals of the thirteen original states (lot 102, lot 102, $3,000–$5,000).