For this month's Research Highlight, we're going back to the basics: the who, what, where, when, and why of the very first printing of the Declaration of Independence, the Dunlap broadside!
John Dunlap was born in 1746 or 1747 in Strabane, County Tyrone in what is now Northern Ireland. Gray’s Printing Press on Main Street, now owned and operated by the National Trust, is believed to be the place where Dunlap learned the print trade as a boy. Dunlap immigrated to Philadelphia, where he was apprenticed to his uncle, printer William Dunlap, at about the age of 10. William himself had been an apprentice to William Bradford, and was married to Deborah Croker, a niece of Deborah Read Franklin. In 1766, William Dunlap handed over management of his print shop to his nephew in order to travel to England to be ordained. In 1768, William Dunlap became the rector of the parish of Stratton in Virginia, and officially sold his business in Philadelphia to John Dunlap.
On October 28, 1771, John Dunlap launched a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet; and the General Advertiser, to be published every Monday. David C. Claypoole eventually became Dunlap’s partner in this enterprise, and in September 1784, the Packet became the first daily newspaper in America. Dunlap also established a newspaper in Baltimore, Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette, or, The Baltimore Advertser in 1775.
He became the official printer to the Continental Congress when he took over the publication of the Journals of the Continental Congress from Robert Aitken in 1777. But Dunlap had printed the Declaration of Independence, as well as numerous other broadsides and handbills, before then; in November 1776, the Committee of Treasury reported, “that there is due... To John Dunlap, for printing sundry resolves of Congress, commissions, proclamations, &c. 654 66/90 dollars.” In 1787 with Claypoole, Dunlap printed the United States Constitution, first for use by the Constitutional Convention in debate, and later in the Packet as the first public printing.
In February 1773 at Christ Church in Philadelphia, Dunlap married Elizabeth Hayes Ellison (1746-1836), a widow from Liverpool. Dunlap made a great fortune through printing as well as real estate, and was able to retire in 1795. He was also an officer in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, and was involved in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton during the American Revolution, as well as in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1799, as Captain of the Troop, Dunlap wrote, “With pleasure I tell you, that when the Laws and Government of this happy country require defence, the First Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry wants but one hour’s notice to march.” The First City Troop exists as a unit of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and is the oldest military unit in the United States still in active service.
John Dunlap died on November 27, 1812; an announcement in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (descendant of Dunlap’s Packet) read, “The friends of the deceased (particularly the Printers of Philadelphia) are invited to attend his Funeral, at nine o’clock This Morning, from his late dwelling, at the corner of Chesnut and Thirteenth streets.” Another announcement in the same paper called for “The first Troop of Cavalry... to attend the Funeral of Mr. JOHN DUNLAP, their late Commander.” He was buried at Christ Church Burial Ground, where his wife Elizabeth and their daughters are also buried.
In his History of Printing in America, Isaiah Thomas noted that, “Dunlap executed his printing in a neat and correct manner." In his memoir, Benjamin Rush described Dunlap as follows: “From small beginnings as a printer he acquired by his business, but chiefly by speculation, an estate of perhaps three or four thousand dollars. So humble was his beginning in life that he slept upon a blanket under his counter and ate pepper-pot only bought in the market from his inability to purchase a bed or any other food. He was a staunch Revolutionary Whig, and active as a dragoon in the most perilous stages of the war. In the parties which divided his country he was always moderate, candid and just to both sides. To public institutions he was liberal, to the poor charitable and to his friends kind and affectionate. In his family he was less amiable and respectable than in society. Towards the close of his life he became intemperate so as to fall in the streets. He was early and uniformly my friend.”
On Tuesday, July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress ordered, “That the declaration be authenticated and printed. That the committee appointed to prepare the declaration, superintend and correct the press. That copies of the declaration be sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops; that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army.” That same day, John Dunlap set to work on producing a printed broadside of the text. It is likely that one or more members of the Committee of Five superintended his work in some capacity. It is also plausible that a manuscript copy of the text, long since lost, served as Dunlap’s source.
In 1975, 21 copies of the Dunlap broadside were known to exist, and in anticipation of the bicentennial, the Library of Congress brought 17 of those copies together to be analyzed by rare books librarian Frederick R. Goff. The most significant result of this endeavor was the recognition of two distinct states of the Dunlap broadside, differentiated by a slight change in the indent of the imprint.
Examples of the First State (Broadside at the National Archives) and Second State (Broadside at the Library of Congress)
Watermarks show that the majority of the Dunlap broadsides were printed on Dutch paper. Most of the watermarks feature a crown and post design, varied slightly by different papermills. Some watermarks include the letters “GR,” attributed to the mill of L.V. Gerrevinck, and as Julian Boyd notes, Jefferson’s “First Ideas” on the Virginia Constitution were also written on Gerrevinck paper. The Dunlap broadside at Independence National Historical Park has a unique watermark – still the crown and post design, but with the name “D & C Blauw,” and according to Hendrick Voorn’s Old Ream Wrappers, Dirk and Cornelius Blauw were members of a long-standing and well-respected family of papermakers in what is now North Holland. Other copies of the Dunlap broadside were printed on paper produced by “J. Honig & Zoonen.” In fact, Goff claims, four of the five copies in the second state, as well as the broadside believed to have been sent to George Washington, have this watermark, indicating that the Washington broadside may also belong to the second state.
Goff’s close study of the Dunlap broadsides provides evidence for the haste with which they were produced. For example, eleven of the copies he examined, including both states, bear evidence of having been folded before the ink was completely dry (known as offsetting). Differences in chain lines and margins also provide evidence that the form, which holds the type, wasn’t set completely level in the press.
There is no official record of just how many broadsides Dunlap produced on July 4-5. The general consensus seems to be 150-200 copies, but it is unclear if there is any evidence to back up this number. In summarizing his study, Goff asserts that, “the number of copies printed the night of July 4 and the morning of July 5 is undetermined but cannot have been large.” Today, 25 Dunlap broadsides are known to exist. This number excludes the “proof” copy at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and one of the copies at the National Archives in the UK, which has a different imprint: “Baltimore: Printed by John Dunlap.”
John Dunlap’s print shop was located near the southeast corner of High (Market) Street and Second Street. The Society of Professional Journalists placed a commemorative plaque on the site in 1976. Dunlap’s location was strategic: just four blocks from the State House (Independence Hall) and one block from the London Coffee House.
Plan of the City of Philadelphia from William Birch's Views of Philadelphia, 1800
Since July 5, 1776, Dunlap broadsides have quite literally travelled the world. However, only a handful of known broadsides can be tied directly to the players and events of July 1776. The Dunlap broadside at Independence National Historical Park, with the unique Blauw watermark, is believed to have been the copy that Colonel John Nixon read in the yard of the State House on July 8, the first of many official public readings of the Declaration of Independence across the country in July and August 1776. The fragmentary Dunlap broadside with the Honig & Zoonen watermark, now in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, is apparently the copy sent to George Washington, which was read at the head of the army in New York on July 9. Another Dunlap broadside was inserted into the manuscript Journals of the Continental Congress by Charles Thomson, and is still in the papers of the Continental Congress at the National Archives. Two of the Dunlap broadsides at the National Archives in the UK were sent by Admiral Howe and General Howe back to London, and another (found in 2008) was among intercepted American correspondence.
Here are the locations for the 25 extant Dunlap broadsides:
- New Haven, Connecticut: Beinecke Library, Yale University [View]
- Bloomington, Indiana: Lilly Library, Indiana University [View]
- Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Historical Society
- Portland, Maine: Maine Historical Society [View]
- Baltimore, Maryland: Maryland Historical Society
- Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society [View]
- Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Library, Harvard University
- Williamstown, Massachusetts: Williams College [View]
- Princeton, New Jersey: Scheide Library, Princeton University [View]
- New York, New York: New York Public Library [View]
- New York, New York: Morgan Library
- Exeter, New Hampshire: American Independence Museum [View]
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: American Philosophical Society
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Independence National Historical Park [View]
- Dallas, Texas: Dallas Public Library
- Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia (two copies)
- Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress (two copies) [View - Washington Fragment] [View - Full Broadside]
- Washington, D.C.: National Archives [View]
- London, United Kingdom: National Archives (three copies) [View]
- Roving (Norman Lear copy)
- Private Collector
According to Paul H. Starr, the vote for the Declaration of Independence took place early in the day, perhaps before noon. This is corroborated by the Journals of the Continental Congress, in which the Declaration is just the second order of business in a long day of activity. Even Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin – members of the Committee of Five – were set to a new task before Congress adjourned for the day. If the vote happened early in the day, then Dunlap likely began his work in the afternoon or early evening, and printed through the night.
On July 5, President of the Continental Congress John Hancock started sending out Dunlap broadsides.
To the New Jersey Convention, July 5: “I do myself the Honour to enclose, in Obedience to the Commands of Congress, a Copy of the Declaration of Independence, which you will please to have proclaimed in your Colony in such Way & Manner as you shall Judge best. The important Consequences resulting to the American States from this Declaration of Independence, considered as the Ground & Foundation of a future Government, will naturally suggest the Propriety of proclaiming it in such a Mode, as that the People may be universally informed of it.”
To the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, July 5: “I do myself the Honour to enclose, in Obedience to the Commands of Congress, a Copy of the Declaration of Independence; which I am directed to request, you will have proclaimed, in your Colony, in the Way and Manner, you shall judge best. The American States being now for ever divided from those who wished to destroy them, it has become absolutely necessary for their Security and Happiness to adopt some Government of their own. In this View of the Matter, the important Consequences, flowing from a Declaration of Independence, considered as the Ground & Foundation thereof, will naturally suggest the Propriety of proclaiming it in such a Mode, that the People may be universally informed of it.”
On July 6, Hancock sent out broadsides to the rest of the states, and to the Commander in Chief of the Army.
To the States, July 6: “Altho it is not possible to foresee the Consequences of Human Actions, yet it is nevertheless a Duty we owe ourselves and Posterity in all our public Counsels, to decide in the best Manner we are able, and to trust the Event to that Being who controuls both Causes and Events so as to bring about his own Determinations. Impressed with this Sentiment, and at the same Time fully convinced that our Affairs may take a more favourable Turn, the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve all Connection between Great Britain & the American Colonies, and to declare them free and independent States, as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed by Congress to transmit to you, and to request you will have it proclaimed in your Colony in the Way you shall think most proper. The important Consequences to the American States from this Declaration of Independence, considered as the Ground & Foundation of a future Government, will naturally suggest the Propriety of proclaiming it in such a Manner, that the People may be universally informed of it.”
To George Washington, July 6: “The Congress, for some Time past, have had their Attention occupied by one of the most interesting and important Subjects, that could possibly come before them, or any other Assembly of Men. Altho it is not possible to foresee the Consequences of Human Actions, yet it is nevertheless a Duty we owe ourselves and Posterity, in all our public Counsels, to decide in the best Manner we are able, and to leave the Event to that Being who controuls both Causes and Events to bring about his own Determination. Impressed with this Sentiment, and at the same Time fully convinced, that our Affairs may take a more favourable Turn, the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve the Connection between Great Britain and the American Colonies, and to declare them free & independent States; as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed to transmit to you, and to request you will have it proclaimed at the Head of the Army in the Way you shall think most proper.”
Frederick Goff suggests that two states of the Dunlap broadside exist because two batches were printed: “As Hancock’s first supply became exhausted, he undoubtedly required more copies. John Dunlap acquiesced, but before the printing of this second group the imprint was reset slightly to the left, producing a second state.”
As Thomas Starr notes, the importance of a printed edition is built into the text of the Declaration itself: the phrase “solemnly publish and declare” in the second-to-last sentence was an addition by Congress to the draft. As the first publication, produced within just hours of the vote approving the text, the Dunlap broadside represents a timely and official effort to deliver the news of independence to “the good People” in whose name and by whose authority the Continental Congress had acted. In 1949, Michael Walsh called the Dunlap broadside “the most important single printed document in our national annals.” At that time, only fourteen copies were known; interest in the Dunlap broadside has only increased since then, as more copies have come to light.
But, the stories woven into the Dunlap broadside are what make it a truly fascinating edition of the Declaration of Independence. The first copy of a groundbreaking, foundational document was printed by a 29-year-old Irish immigrant, primarily on Dutch paper. Offsetting and a shifted imprint are evidence of a hurried and unpredictable printing process. Broadsides were intended for both posting and reading in public, and the Dunlap broadside read at the very first public reading still exists. The first printer wasn't just a printer – five months after printing the Declaration, Dunlap led a troop at Trenton and “boldly demanded the surrender” of a group of Hessians. And, ironically, five months after the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the first printer of the Declaration of Independence died. Dunlap’s name wasn’t unanimous with the Declaration in his own time as it is now – after all, he was also the first printer of the United States Constitution – but he was and continues to be respected as a printer. At the very least, with his broadside, variants, and two newspapers, Dunlap was the most prolific printer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
For more on the Dunlap and his broadside:
- Frederick Goff, The John Dunlap Broadside: The First Printing of the Declaration of Independence, 1976
- Visit Gray’s Printing Press in Strabane. They even celebrate the Fourth of July!
- Brief biographies of both William Dunlap and John Dunlap in Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America
- History of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, 1895
- Thomas Starr, “Separated at Birth: Text and Context of the Declaration of Independence,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 2002
By Emily Sneff
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