The Binns Engraving of the Declaration of Independence

Last July 4th we looked at the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence. This year we’re examining a lesser-known, ceremonial copy of the Declaration of Independence: the Binns engraving.

Numerous ceremonial copies of the Declaration of Independence were created in the surge of nationalism following the War of 1812. At that time, most signers had either passed away or were quite elderly, and interest in the Declaration was resurfacing. Three of the more prominent copies included the Tyler engraving, the Binns engraving, and the Stone engraving.

In 1816, Irish-born Philadelphia publisher John Binns publicly proposed printing a large, ceremonial engraving of the text of the Declaration of Independence, including facsimile signatures, that he would sell for $10 ($13 colored). After Binns announced his intentions, several others copied his idea, including publisher Benjamin Owen Tyler. The two men engaged in a bitter and public competition to be the first to publish and sell their engraving with the official text of the Declaration. Their feud played out in rival newspapers, with Binns accusing Tyler of stealing his idea, plagiarizing his work, and violating the custom of their trade.

To create his engraving, Binns began by requesting a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which was then in the custody of the Department of State. At the request of Senator Jonathan Roberts of Pennsylvania, Secretary of State James Monroe sent Binns a copy of the Declaration. Binns later asked the State Department to send him impressions of the coat of arms of the United States and a certificate the arms was, in fact, accurate. Binns also sent letters to various states asking for impressions and descriptions of the state coats of arms.

As Binns received the copies and impressions of what he planned on featuring in the engraving, he assembled a team of artists and engravers to execute his vision. He also made plans to send an engraver to Washington, DC, to make a copy of the signatures.

In 1818, as Binns was still working on his design, he submitted an unfinished proof for copyright.

Binns included a description of what the final engraving would look like:

“A Splendid Edition of the Declaration of Independence. The Design in imitation of Bas Relief, will encircle the Declaration as a cordon of honor, surmounted by the arms of the United States. Immediately underneath the arms, will be a large medallion portrait of General George Washington, supported by cornucopiae, and embellished with spears, flags, and other Military trophies and emblems. On the one side of this medallion portrait, will be a similar portrait of John Hancock, . . . and on the other, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. 

“The arms of ‘The Thirteen United States’ in medallion, united by wreaths of olive leaves, will form the remainder of the cordon, which will be further enriched by some of the characteristic productions of the United States; such as the Tobacco and Indigo plants, the Cotton Shrub, Rice &c. The fac similes will be engraved by Mr. Vallance, who will execute the important part of the publication at the City of Washington, where, by permission of the Secretary of State, he will have the original signatures constantly under his eye.” 

While Binns was still finalizing his engraving, Tyler beat him to the finish line and in 1818 published his engraving. He dedicated the engraving to the Declaration’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson, and included an attestation by the acting Secretary of State Richard Rush, son of signer Benjamin Rush, that it was a correct copy. 

That didn’t stop Binns from completing his masterpiece, which was to be much more ornate than Tyler’s version. In July 1819, Binns sent an unfinished proof to Thomas Jefferson asking for suggestions on improvement. He also told Jefferson he planned to dedicate his engraving to the people of the United States rather than to any individual connected with the document.

The proof never made it to Jefferson and has not been located, but from Binns’s description, it was still missing the arms of the United States, some of the state medallions, the name of the author of the Declaration, and the certification by the Secretary of State. Jefferson, having not seen the proof, thanked Binns and offered no suggestions. 

In September 1819, Binns solicited John Adams’s input, writing: “I have the honor herewith to send an unfinished copy of a splendid edition of the Declaration of Independence. It has been in the Engraver’s hands more than three years and I have spared neither labor nor expense to give to the world such an edition as shall not be altogether unworthy the noble instrument which it will assist to familiarize to the eyes and make dear to the affections not only of Americans but of Mankind.” As with the print meant for Jefferson, the engraving did not make it to Adams with Binns’s request. It eventually showed up in the mail a couple weeks later, but there is no evidence that Adams gave Binns any suggestions.

By November 1819—more than three years since his initial proposal—Binns’s 26″ (w) x 36″ (l) engraving was finished at a total cost of $9,000 (roughly $200,000 in today’s dollars). To further one-up Tyler, Binns’s engraving included a note at the bottom from Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of signer—and former President—John Adams. It stated, “I certify, that this is a CORRECT copy of the original Declaration of Independence, deposited at this Department; and that I have compared all the signatures with those of the original, and have found them EXACT IMITATIONS.”

Binns also included credits to his many contributors. Decorative painter George Bridport drew the ornamental portions. Portrait painter Thomas Sully drew the arms of the United States and the 13 state medallions. The portrait of George Washington was copied from a 1795 Gilbert Stuart painting; the portrait of Thomas Jefferson was copied from a 1816 painting by Bass Otis; and the portrait of John Hancock was copied from a 1765 painting by John Singleton Copley.

Engraver George Murray engraved the ornamental portions, the arms of the United States, and the 13 state medallions; engraver Charles H. Parker designed and engraved the text; engraver James Barton Longacre engraved the portraits; and facsimiles of signatures were engraved by Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co. It was printed by Philadelphia printer James Porter. The exact number of prints made is unknown, but the National Park Service estimates that about 100 of those prints exist today. 

The print in the National Archives is from the records of the U.S. Senate within the Center for Legislative Archives. It was housed with a bill introduced by Senator Roberts authorizing Congress to purchase copies of the engraving (the bill did not pass).

While Tyler’s and Binns’s engravings included exact copies of the signatures, they were not true, exact facsimiles of the entire document, and their marketability soon took a big hit. In 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams decided there should be a full-size exact facsimile of the Declaration and commissioned William Stone to create what would become the Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence. Stone completed it in 1823, and it became the official copy for government use. 

Image of the Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence. (National Archives Identifier 1656604)

As if the added competition wasn’t enough, Binns also had to contend with copiers. In 1819, Binns sued Philadelphia engraver William Woodruff for making an engraving that was remarkably similar to Binns’s own. Woodruff was able to copy the design while working for one of Binns’s artists and actually got his to market before Binns. Unfortunately for Binns, in 1821 the court ruled against him, saying he was not entitled to copyright because his work included previously published engravings. After the ruling, Woodruff updated his design and published almost an exact replica of Binns’s engraving.

Undeterred, Binns went on to have a long career in publishing and even published his autobiography in 1854, Recollections of the Life of John Binns. He died in Philadelphia on June 16, 1860, at the age of 87. Binns’s engraving plate is currently housed in the Graphic Arts Department at the Library Company of Philadelphia. The library likely acquired it in 1948 as part of the purchase of the James Barton Longacre Collection.

Visit the National Archives website to learn more about the Declaration of Independence and how we are celebrating the July 4th holiday.

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