None of the 1776 Declaration imprints captured the signatures, or even listed the names of the signers. After the decisive battles of Trenton and Princeton, Congress on January 18, 1777, ordered an authenticated copy of the Declaration printed for distribution to the states, complete with signer’s names. Baltimore printer Mary Katherine Goddard produced these copies, and, after being signed by John Hancock and Charles Thomson, at least one was sent to every state.
The engrossed Declaration is presumed to have travelled with the Continental Congress as it met in various Eastern cities. If so, it would have gone from Philadelphia, to Baltimore, back to Philadelphia, then to Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania, and then back to Philadelphia for the remainder of the Revolution. The Continental Congress then met in Princeton, New Jersey (1783), Annapolis, Maryland (1783-1784), Trenton, New Jersey (1784), and New York City (1785-1790). It continued to be held by Congress until March 1790, when Thomas Jefferson assumed his position as the first Secretary of State and the department took charge of “the Acts, Records, and Seal of the United States.”
The precious document was frequently unrolled for display to visitors, and the signatures, especially, began to fade after nearly fifty years of handling. More damage followed, caused by the effects of aging and exposure to sunlight and humidity as the Declaration hung unprotected on a wall in the Patent Office for thirty-five years. At the time of the Centennial, efforts at preservation and conservation belatedly began. By 1876, however, the manuscript was thus described in the Philadelphia Public Ledger: “The text is fully legible, but the major part of the signatures are so pale as to be only dimly discernible in the strongest light, a few remain wholly readable, and some are wholly invisible, the spaces which contained them presenting only a blank.”
Fortunately, in 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams grew concerned over the fragile condition of the Declaration. With the approval of Congress, Adams commissioned William J. Stone to engrave a facsimile—an exact copy—on a copper plate. Stone’s engraving is the best representation of the Declaration as the manuscript looked prior to its nearly complete deterioration.
William J. Stone’s Declaration was engraved on copperplate and printed on vellum, a parchment made from calfskin. The print is as close to an exact copy of the original manuscript as was humanly possible at that time. Stone worked on the engraving for close to three years, keeping the original in his shop. Many assume he used some sort of wet or chemical process to transfer ink from the manuscript to the plate to create such a perfect reproduction, blaming that for the nearly total destruction of the original manuscript. In fact, though, Adams’ prior comments, Stone’s assignment to preserve the original, and the record of the parchment’s mistreatment over the years make that less likely. Also, Stone left minute clues to distinguish the original from the copies, while providing evidence of his painstaking engraving process.
Stone’s work is the best representation of the Declaration manuscript as it looked at the time of signing. On April 11, 1823, Adams noted a visit from “Stone the Engraver, who has finished his fac-simile of the original Declaration of Independence.” By May 10, the original engrossed manuscript was back in John Quincy Adams’s hands, being shown to visitors. All subsequent exact facsimiles of the Declaration descend from Stone’s work. One of the ways to distinguish the first edition is Stone’s original imprint, top left: “ENGRAVED by W.I. STONE, for the Dept. of State, by order,”and continued across the top right: “of J. Q. ADAMS, Sect. of State, July 4th, 1823.” Sometime after Stone completed his original printing, his imprint at top was removed, and replaced with a shorter imprint at bottom left, “W. J. STONE SC WASHn,” just below George Walton’s printed signature.
Daniel Brent of the Department of State wrote to Stone on May 28, 1823, requesting 200 copies of the facsimile “from the engraved plate…now, in your possession, and then to deliver the plate itself to this office to be afterwards occasionally used by you, when the Department may require further supplies of copies from it.” Stone proceeded to print 201 copies on vellum, one of which he kept for himself, as was customary though perhaps not authorized in this case; his family later donated their copy to the Smithsonian Institution. On May 26, 1824, Congress provided orders to John Quincy Adams for distribution of the Stone facsimile for distribution. The surviving three signers of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, each received two copies. Two copies each were also sent to President James Monroe, Vice President Daniel D. Thompkins, former President James Madison, and the Marquis de Lafayette. The Senate and the House of Representatives split twenty copies. The various departments of government received twelve copies apiece. Two copies were sent to the President’s house and to the Supreme Court chamber. The remaining copies were sent to the governors and legislatures of the states and territories, and to various universities and colleges in the United States. The families of at least two or three deceases signers apparently received a copy.
The present example was given to Thomas Emory (1782–1842), a member of a prominent Maryland family (and an uncle of John Emory, Bishop of the M.E. Church and namesake of Emory University). Thomas Emory inherited a large estate, “Poplar Grove,” from his father and was active in a variety of agricultural organizations. He served in the Maryland House of Delegates (1810-1814), the Governor’s Council (1822-1824) and Maryland State Senate (1825 and 1831-1836). He was an officer in the War of 1812, serving as a major in the 9th Cavalry District, and took active part in the defense of the only town in Queen Anne’s County to be attacked by the British. He was also first president of the Eastern Shore Railroad in 1836, and in June, 1841, he represented his county at the Maryland State Colonization Society convention. In 1824, when Emory received his copy, he was President of the Maryland Governor’s Council.
This Stone Declaration may have helped Secretary of State John Quincy Adams win the hotly-disputed 1824 presidential election. At least three of the surviving Stone Declarations bear manuscript inscriptions indicating they were special presentations by Adams. The name on one was penned by Adams himself but can no longer be deciphered. The two that can be read are both inscribed to influential Maryland politicians: Thomas Emory and Joshua Prideaux. Researcher Catherine Nicholson suggests that these inscriptions show Adams “politicking for the presidency by presenting or being ready to present Stone engravings to politicians beyond those authorized explicitly by the May 26, 1824, joint resolution of Congress.” Adams was a popular favorite in New England, but held far less sway in Maryland. In the 1824 presidential election, that state’s electors picked Andrew Jackson over Adams seven to three. But when Jackson failed to garner a majority of votes in the Electoral College, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. The Maryland Congressional delegation, despite their state’s electors and the popular vote, chose Adams over Jackson five to three, thereby helping Adams win the presidency.
Accounting for a copy discovered in France, and recently sold, and another found by a descendant of James Madison (currently on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History), approximately 52 of the Stone printings are known. A current census can be seen at https://www.sethkaller.com/stone-census.
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