"When in the Course of Human Events": The First Printing of the Declaration of Independence

In addition to being a cornerstone of American civilization and the foundation document of the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence is one of the great documents of human intellect. Reflecting the spirit of the Enlightenment, albeit with an American slant, it has become the parent document of the democratic movements that have transformed the world over the past centuries.

The inhabitants of the thirteen colonies learned about the sea change in their political affairs through the public distribution of printed versions of the Declaration. The first of all these versions was this broadside, printed by John Dunlap and issued from the seat of Congress in Philadelphia, beginning on Friday, July 5, 1776. Dunlap, official printer to the Congress, began to set type on the evening of July 4, and finished copies were delivered the following morning. Distribution began the same day. All official pronouncements of American independence derive from this printed document. Even the iconic formal Charter of Freedom "” the manuscript copy on vellum prepared by order of Congress in August 1776 and now enshrined at the National Archives "” was copied from this broadside. Moreover, the text was entered officially in the Rough Journal of the Continental Congress by means of affixing a copy of the Dunlap broadside with sealing wax, rather than by manuscript transcription.

This is one of twenty-five copies of the first printing of the Declaration known to have survived. The size of the original print run is unknown, but it must have been substantial. Copies survive printed on four different stocks of paper, suggesting that large numbers were run off. Most, of course, were lost through their intended use: whether pasted up in the open for public inspection and subjected to the elements, or carried around in good and bad weather for public readings and repeatedly rolled or folded, a broadside is subject to extreme wear and tear, and most copies deteriorate badly. The New York Public Library is honored to be able to preserve this one.

United States Congress. Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia: John Dunlap, July 4-5, 1776.
The New York Public Library, Rare Book Division, Emmet Collection (no. 1528).

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