THIS day was published, and is now selling by Robert Bell, in Third-street (price two shillings) COMMON SENSE addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting SUBJECTS. I. Of the origin and design of government in general, with concise Remarks on the English constitution. II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession. III. Thoughts on the present state of American affairs. IV. Of the present ability of America, with some miscellaneous reflections.
The Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the above advertisement on January 9, 1776. This pamphlet written by Thomas Paine (though the world didn't know that yet) spread like wildfire through the American colonies, with Paine claiming in his later work Rights of Man that over 100,000 copies of Common Sense had been sold. Paine and Bell's timing could not have been better — in that same issue of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on the same page as the advertisement for Common Sense in fact, was the text of a speech King George III delivered in Parliament on October 27, 1775. A speech that expanded on the King's earlier Proclamation of Rebellion and included inflammatory remarks such as "When the happy and deluded multitude... shall become sensible of their error, I shall be ready to receive the misled with tenderness and mercy!" Enter Paine's pamphlet, which argued that "the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth" and "the last cord is now broken".
Since it was first printed in Philadelphia, some of the first readers of Common Sense were the delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Some were thrilled by Common Sense, while others appreciated the section on American independence and dismissed the rest of it. As Steven Pincus explains in The Heart of the Declaration, "perhaps no single piece of writing did more to articulate the importance of unmaking the British Empire than Thomas Paine's Common Sense," but the plan of government described in the pamphlet "was a far cry from that envisioned by most Patriots." One delegate in particular "dreaded the Effect so popular a pamphlet might have, among the People" (any guesses who?). Find out what these soon-to-be signers of the Declaration of Independence thought about Common Sense, which signer took credit for giving the pamphlet its name, and how John Adams responded to the "Disastrous Meteor", Thomas Paine.
The engrossed parchment of the Declaration of Independence was formally enshrined in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. on December 15, 1952, where it resides to this day. From its creation in the summer of 1776 to this final move, the Declaration of Independence travelled more than might be assumed. This month, we trace the engrossed parchment's physical locations and custodians through the first 100 years of its existence, starting and ending with Independence Hall. Stay tuned for part two (1877-today) in February!
1776 Continental Congress Philadelphia
On July 19, 1776, the Continental Congress resolved, "That the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." Timothy Matlack likely took on this task, and on August 2nd, in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, the engrossed parchment was signed by the majority of the 56 delegates.
1776-1789 Continental Congress/Congress of the Confederation Philadelphia -> Baltimore -> Philadelphia -> Lancaster -> York -> Philadelphia -> Princeton -> Annapolis -> Trenton -> New York City
It is assumed that, at this point, the engrossed parchment was entrusted to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress (Image at right courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections). Thomson had been unanimously chosen as Secretary of the First Continental Congress on September 5, 1774. When the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, Thomson was once again chosen as its Secretary. He stayed with the Congress as it transitioned into the Congress of the Confederation (under the Articles of Confederation), serving as secretary to the Congress for nearly 15 years, and counting among his responsibilities the care of the papers of the Congress (including the Declaration of Independence).
If the Declaration stayed with Thomson, then it is likely that it moved with the Congress, as he did. The first move came in December 1776, when the Congress evacuated Philadelphia and reconvened at the Henry Fite House in Baltimore, Maryland later that month. In January 1777, the engrossed parchment -- at least the signatures at the bottom -- likely served as a resource for Mary Katharine Goddard as she created her "authentic copy" of the Declaration. In March 1777, the Continental Congress returned to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, but only for a few months. In September 1777, Congress met for a day at the court house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before moving further west to the court house in York, Pennsylvania. In July 1778, Congress returned to Independence Hall, this time for a few years. In June 1783, the Congress of the Confederation fled the Pennsylvania Mutiny and relocated to Nassau Hall in Princeton, New Jersey. A few months later, in November 1783, the Congress reconvened at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland. In November 1784, the Congress met at the French Arms Tavern in Trenton, New Jersey for a month before adjourning and moving to New York. From January 11, 1785 through 1789, the Congress of the Confederation met in New York City, at City Hall (which later became Federal Hall) and at Fraunces Tavern.
Over the course of these thirteen years in the care of Charles Thomson, the engrossed parchment (assuming it stayed with the Congress through each of these moves) found a home in four different states, and spent a total of about six years at its first home, Independence Hall. The transition of custody that came with the establishment of the Federal Government would bring the Declaration back to Philadelphia and, ironically, back under the care of the man who drafted those engrossed words.