Today’s post comes from Megan Huang, an intern in the National Archives History Office. Visit our July 4th web page to learn more about the Declaration and our celebration of it at the National Archives.
Before people came to see the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, the Declaration came to the people, only in a different form than what’s on display now.
When the Second Continental Congress declared independence on July 4 in Philadelphia, a farmer in Charleston, South Carolina, or a merchant outside Boston, Massachusetts, might not have heard the news for several days. With the television, telephone, and internet still decades and centuries away, people learned of breaking news oftentimes through the written word. Broadsides—large pieces of paper printed to be posted in public spaces—were a common way for spreading news.
A broadside was how many people learned of Congress’s declaration of independence. In particular, from the Dunlap Broadside.
The Dunlap Broadsides are called that because they were printed by John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer who eventually became the the official printer to Congress in 1778. Over the night of July 4/5, 1776, Dunlap printed possibly one of the most important documents of his career with these first editions of the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, he produced the first public and published version of the Declaration.
The exact number Dunlap printed is unknown, but is estimated to be around 200—enough to comply with Congress’s orders that the copies be distributed among the new states and troops, read aloud, and posted in public areas.
Congress kept its own copy, which was inserted into the Rough Journal of the Continental Congress’s July 4 entry, and George Washington had his own personal copy as well. His troops heard the Declaration read aloud on July 9 in New York City. That evening the local Sons of Liberty chapter gathered to pull down and destroy an impressive bronze statue of King George III on the southern end of Broadway, in an iconic moment of the Revolution.
The National Archives is famous for displaying the engrossed parchment copy of Declaration, but what’s lesser known is that we also have a Dunlap Broadside in our possession. It has been displayed only occasionally as a very special document display—only 26 known copies survive.
While today the Declaration is considered one of the most important documents of American history, its 18th-century creators may have been less concerned with its legacy and more with its immediate purpose of explaining why they had been colonists and subjects of the Kingdom of Great Britain on July 3 and citizens of the 13 United States of America on July 4 (conveniently ignoring the minor detail that this independence still, in fact, needed to be won).
This intent is evident in the Dunlap Broadside. The content is the same as in the engrossed version on display at the National Archives, but the use of simple type instead of calligraphy and a lack of the flamboyant signatures (which Dunlap could not have printed even if he wanted to, since the delegates signed the Declaration August 2) allows us focus on the actual words.
More clearly separating the offenses of King George III is another noticeable difference that highlights the Declaration’s purpose of justifying the vote for independence.
The engrossed Declaration has the allure of being the “official” version, but in 1776, the Dunlap version is actually the one more people would have been familiar with, given its wider circulation. Offshoots helped ensure this since the most printers based their own editions off Dunlap’s. In contrast to today, more people during the revolutionary era saw Dunlap’s version, or some iteration of it, than the engrossed version on display here at the National Archives.
This Independence Day, come visit the engrossed Declaration of Independence in the National Archives Museum, and watch our video on the Dunlap Broadside to learn more about its history:
Happy Independence Day!
There are other versions of the Declaration of Independence. Learn more in the Prologue article, “Finding the Stones: National Archives Discovers Several Engravings of the Declaration.” And test your knowledge of the Declaration of Independence by taking our quiz!