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Declaration of Independence

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True Copy of Declaration


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The Truest Copy of the Declaration of Independence

In June 1992, Tom Lingenfelter, a dealer in rare historical documents and artifacts in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, found the truest copy of the 1776 handwritten Declaration of Independence at a flea market. This extraordinary discovery was able to tell a more complete story of how this priceless document came to be.

The Anastatic Declaration of Independence. Courtesy of the Heritage Collectors' Society, Inc., All Rights Reserved
The Anastatic Declaration of Independence. Courtesy of the Heritage Collectors' Society, Inc., All Rights Reserved

The Original Engrossed (Handwritten) Declaration

If we travel back in time to June 7, 1776, we would witness Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introducing a resolution in the Second Continental Congress "that these United States are and of right ought to be Free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved." Lee's Resolution was the beginning of the process which would lead to the Declaration of Independence.

On July 19th, Congress ordered an engrossed copy of the Declaration on vellum. Timothy Matlack, assistant to Secretary Charles Thomson, was the actual scribe who provided the final document to be signed by the representatives. By that time, Matlack was able to reflect the addition of New York's affirmative vote on July 9th by titling the document "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." It is known that Thomas McKean of Delaware was the last to affix his signature to the engrossed Declaration. An early official printing, ordered from Baltimore printer Mary Goddard in January, 1777, did not include McKeans name. McKean's signature, possibly added as late as 1781, brought the final number of signers on the engrossed Declaration of Independence to 56.

Currently housed and displayed at the National Archives in Washington DC, the original engrossed Declaration is the most revered document in America, but it is quite diminished from its original glory, and there is very little documentation of how it came to be in this condition.

An audit performed by The National Academy of Sciences in 1891 asserted that the poor condition of the Declaration was attributed to attempts of a wet copy technique.

The Dunlap Copies

Once the Declaration's text was revised into its final form on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned its official printer, John Dunlap, to typeset and print copies. Dunlap, working from a corrected manuscript and supervised by the drafting committee, produced approximately 200 broadsides for distribution to the thirteen states and elsewhere.

Dunlap is believed to have worked feverishly on the night of July 4th to produce his broadsides so they could be posted and read aloud on July 5th to alert the citizenry of this momentous event in time. As John Adams later wrote, "We were all in haste."

The Dunlap copies do not carry the same title of unanimity as the original engrossed copy due to New York's abstention until July 9th. Instead, the Dunlap copies carry the title "In Congress July 4, 1776, A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled."

One of these Dunlap copies was reportedly delivered to George Washington at Valley Forge to be read aloud to the troops. Another, currently housed at Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, was donated to the park by the heirs of Colonel John Nixon, the man appointed by the sheriff of Philadelphia to read the Declaration aloud in the State House yard on July 8, 1776.

Only 25 Dunlap Copies are known to still exist. The last Dunlap copy sold at auction was offered by Sotheby's on eBay on June 29, 2000 and brought $8.14 million from collector Norman Lear, who partnered with Silicon Valley investor David Hayden. This copy made a tour of the country to allow Americans to view it.

The Stone Copies

In 1820, in response to a wave of patriotism following the War of 1812 and in advance of the nation's 50th birthday, John Quincy Adams commissioned Washington DC engraver William Stone to produce a facsimile of the original engrossed Declaration's text and the 56 signatures of the members of the Continental Congress.

Stone required three years to complete his task and the results were a remarkably accurate engraved copper plate. History does not record his exact technique or methodology, but various rumors over the years included the employment of a tracking device, tracing and even a suspicion that Stone's skills included those of a master forger.

It is now widely accepted that Stone utilized carefully placed mirrors and his exemplary engraving skills in a painstakingly tedious process to create his printing plate. With the discovery of the Anastatic Declaration it is proven Stone was a master engraver as they are nearly identical.

Stone completed the engraving of the copper plate in 1823 and sold it to the State Department. A congressional resolution passed on May 26, 1824 with an order placed for 200 copies, on vellum. These copies were to be distributed to official repositories, significant office holders and the surviving signers of the Declaration, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Charles Carroll. Two copies were given to the Marquis d'Lafayette when he visited America in 1824.

At 24 x 30 inches, the Stone facsimile is very close to the original engrossed Declaration in size. At the top is a line that reads "Engraved by W.I. STONE for the Department of State by order of J.Q. Adams Secy of State July 4, 1823." After the 1823 printing this imprint line was burnished off of the copperplate and a new imprint was added to the bottom left, below the first column of signatures. "W. J. STONE WASHN."

Later printings from the Stone copperplate are the same size but printed on paper, not parchment or vellum, and have the imprint bottom left. Even with this alteration, collectors still prize later Stone copies on vellum.

Stone's copperplate is currently in the National Archives in Washington DC.

The Anastatic Declaration

Lingenfelter found his copy of the Declaration in a lot sale where it was originally alleged to be a memorabilia copy created for the Centennial. The document was covered in varnish. When he saw the words "ANASTATIC FAC-SIMILE" at the bottom left of his broadside he decided to Google the word anastatic.

Law's website defines anastatic printing as "a form of facsimile reproduction invented and developed in Germany in the early 1840s and subsequently in England. It has been intended to reproduce old and rare works, but had the major failing that it sometimes destroyed the original without producing a copy."

It is the latter portion of this statement that makes the Anastatic Declaration even more important and certainly much more rare than Dunlap or Stone copies. Lingenfelter believes the anastatic process radically accelerated the deterioration of the original engrossed Declaration now at the National Archives in Washington DC.

"Those who go to see the engrossed copy at the National Archives are shocked that it is barely visible. Its pale brown text on off-white parchment is impossible to read," Lingenfelter said. "The Anastatic Declaration is a facsimile from a plate produced by a chemical transfer process that nearly destroyed the original engrossed Declaration."

The Anastatic Declaration, then, is not just significant as a more rare, direct and exacting facsimile of the original engrossed Declaration than the Dunlap and Stone copies.

Exposing Americans to the Declaration's Original Glory

Such unexpected twists in time and new revelations of circumstance are what draws those interested in history to study these early documents with a whole new eye. "History comes to life in these special moments said Hugh Smith of Firelock Fireproof Modular Vaults, "to view Independence National Historical Park's copy in person at Independence Hall as the guest of Curator Robert L Giannini, III. Viewing the Anastatic Declaration flanked by two pristine William J. Stone engraved copies was a singular experience for me. Giannini's great enthusiasm for these early documents brought this period to life."

The park now has the ability to showcase a set of documents that truly reflects what the Declaration looked like at its inception. It is hoped that these documents will soon be on display along with other 19th century printings at the reconstructed Declaration House at 7th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, which holds significance as the location where Jefferson wrote the Declaration's first draft on his lap desk.

Time and again the government sought to make the Declaration of Independence a true document of the people through various attempts at replication. In hindsight, some may view the use of the anastatic process as a tragedy, while others may contend that these two anastatic facsimile sisters find themselves in a unique place in history.

Each of the various methods used certainly created documents of high intrinsic and historical value, but the Anastatic Declaration provides a more accurate understanding of what one should envision when imagining the original engrossed Declaration of Independence, with the evidence of 56 men who were willing to risk treason "and a certain death sentence" in exchange for true liberty.

This story has been adapted for from the Heritage Collectors' Society, Inc.

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