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A print showing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, July 4, 1776.
N. Currier. Declaration of Independence: July 4th. United States, None. [New York: N. Currier, between 1835 and 1856] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91795009/.

O Say, Did You Know: The Story of the Declaration of Independence

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What’s the most famous document in American history? Most of us would probably guess it’s the Declaration of Independence — which is exactly what pops up if you search that question online. The full story behind the creation and keeping of this remarkable text is a fascinating tale closely bound up with the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building and collections. For an Independence Day family activity, here’s an outline of the Declaration’s history, and some additional resources to explore.

Any good piece of writing starts with a draft (students, take note!). On June 11th 1776, several days after Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion to the Continental Congress that the American colonies should declare independence from Great Britain, delegates nominated five colleagues to draft a document to do just that. The committee members were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.  Library collections in the Manuscript, Rare Book and Special Collections, and Prints and Photograph Divisions provide accounts of the Declaration’s creation:

  • Thomas Jefferson’s proven writing skills made him a natural choice to craft the initial version. He set about the task in his rented lodgings in Philadelphia.  Learn why he was selected, and discover some of the influences that shaped his arguments for independence here, and here.
  • A fragment of Jefferson’s earliest known draft, and the “original rough draught” with edits by Adams and Franklin are both at the Library. Learn about them, and much more, in this online exhibition.
  • This transcript of Jefferson’s unedited draft is much easier to read than the handwritten version.
A print of the Declaration Committee members.
An 1876 print of the Declaration Committee. Thomas Jefferson (left) looks rather peeved — could he be irritated by the edits to his work?

Once the Continental Congress voted to accept the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the next step in its creation fell to printer John Dunlap. That evening, his workshop typeset and printed copies of what we know as the Dunlap Broadside. Couriers took to the roads to distribute them and to spread the exciting news. The Declaration began to appear in newspapers a few days later, as outlined here. The same piece also notes that the Library holds fifteen examples of these first newspaper printings.

The Dunlap Broadside famously only bears the names of Continental Congress President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson. When the body decided that other members’ names should also be listed, those present on August 2, 1776 signed a handwritten, parchment version known as the “engrossed” Declaration. Absent members added their names later, making a total of fifty-six signatures. It’s this signed, manuscript version that we usually think of today as the Declaration of Independence. In 1777, Baltimore printer Mary Katharine Goddard produced the printed copies of this document, publicizing the names of those who had taken the momentous decision throughout the colonies.

Text describing how flies bothered the delegates during the signing of the Declaration in August 1776.
An unexpected annoyance faced by the Continental Congress during the August 2 1776 signing session, described in The Declaration of Independence (page 22).

The signed Declaration had several homes before it was installed in its current location at the National Archives. You can read about the document’s early quarters at the State Department and Patent Office on pages 14-15 of The Declaration of Independence, a digitized book from 1904. Pages 15-16 outline its location, condition and storage, followed by several pictures of the steel cabinets that housed it and other founding documents.

In 1921, as this thorough and readable article shares, the Declaration came to the Library. Author Dr. John Cole describes its removal to Fort Knox, Kentucky, during World War II, its return to the Library and how the document was eventually transferred to the National Archives in 1952. He also outlines the protracted resistance of Librarians of Congress Herbert Putnam and Archibald MacLeish to the handover. No doubt they would be gratified that even today, some visitors arrive at the Jefferson Building under the impression that it’s displayed onsite rather than at the Archives about a mile away.

Text describing July 4, 1777 celebrations in Philadelphia
A description of the city’s July 4, 1777 celebrations in The Book of Philadelphia (page 78).

Colleague Cheryl Fox’s blog post The Shrine at the Library of Congress, 1924-1952 and images from the collections provide additional details about the Declaration’s time at the Library. In 1924, Librarian Herbert Putnam holds the Declaration before it was installed in its new shrine in the Jefferson Building. This photo from 1935 shows space at the Archives ready and waiting for the document — no one could have imagined it would be another seventeen years before it would be pried out of the Library’s clutches! A magazine illustration from 1945 depicts visitors admiring the Declaration on its return to the Library from Fort Knox. In 1947, then Attorney General Tom Clark gazes reverently at the shrine and its contents.

Lady Bird Johnson viewing the Declaration on display.
Lady Bird Johnson at the opening of the Library exhibition “To Set a Country Free”.
Washington D.C, 1975. Prints and Photographs Division.

Learn More:

To explore the Declaration story in more detail, take a look at these resources:

Digitized books in the collections provide a wealth of additional information. Most are older accounts, so the writing styles and sentiments are rather old-fashioned.

  • Find biographies of the fifty-six signers in this volume from 1848.
  • This 1903 book includes many interesting details:
    • See images 20-21 for descriptions of Richard Henry Lee’s motion, the subsequent debate and the forming of the Declaration Committee
    • Excerpts from John Adams’ letter to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776 (image 24)
    • Damage to the Declaration (image 5)
  • The Book of Philadelphia (1918) is full of tidbits about the summer of 1776:
    • Richard Henry Lee’s motion; the formation of the Declaration Committee and passage of the Declaration (pages 76 – 77)
    •  Continental Congress members absent on July 4; the role of “gorgeous dresser” John Hancock, (pages 64-66)
    • Delaware’s Caesar Rodney’s heroic, Paul Revere-esque ride to reach Philadelphia in time to vote (pages 66-67)
    • A description of the State House in Philadelphia (pages 70 -76)

This episode of the From the Vaults video series discusses the Declaration.

Timestamps:

0:49 – 4:16: The Dunlap Broadside, and John Dunlap’s story.

8:08 – 9:31: George Washington’s copy of the Declaration.

9:33 – 11:18: The engrossed Declaration.

11:19 – 15:17: The Declaration Committee, and the writing and editing process.

16:15 – 18:32: Mary Katharine Goddard and the second printing of the Declaration.

The Declaration of Independence may no longer be housed at the Library, but the Library’s collections help tell the full story of how this most revered of documents came to be, and how Americans have long celebrated the anniversary of independence with pomp and circumstance. If you’d like to add a family recitation of the Declaration to your parade or firework plans, reading together from this gorgeous illustrated version would be a fitting way to mark the day. We wish you all a happy Fourth of July!

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