By Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and the author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 04/07/08):
According to the film “National Treasure,” the Declaration of Independence is a document of such far-seeing sagacity that it has secret codes and treasure maps hidden in the parchment. You just have to know how to look for them. But that poses the question: which document, precisely, is the Declaration of Independence?
Most of us would answer that it’s the manuscript written on vellum, dated July 4, 1776, now displayed in a baroque case at the National Archives, where it is protected by bulletproof glass, argon gas and the 55-ton underground vault it is lowered into every night. But like everything connected to the Declaration, the situation is complicated, for that document was not written on July 4; it was a handwritten copy that Congress ordered later that summer and post-dated. The version that was in the room as the vote was taken has never been seen since then.
The Declaration originated as a spoken thought, expressed on June 7, 1776, by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, who moved that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” A written version was produced on June 28, primarily the work of Thomas Jefferson, who left at least seven rough drafts, one found as recently as 1947. On July 2, Congress approved the first paragraph of the Declaration, officially separating from England.
Then, on July 4, the rest of the text was approved. Jefferson claimed that a “fair copy” of the document was in the room that day, and John Hancock possibly signed something, making it legal. If this manuscript still exists, it is the holy grail of American freedom.
That same day, the Congress ordered that the document be distributed — for what is a declaration if no one can see it? Further, they ordered the same committee that had written it to “superintend and correct the press” — in other words, handle the printing job. The assignment was given to a 28-year-old Irish immigrant named John Dunlap, who presumably spent much of the night of July 4 setting type, correcting it and running off broadsides — perhaps 200 in all. There is evidence that it was done quickly, and in excitement — watermarks are reversed, some copies look as if they were folded before the ink could dry and bits of punctuation move around from one copy to another. “We were all in haste,” John Adams later wrote.
It is romantic to think that Benjamin Franklin, the greatest printer of his day, was there in Dunlap’s shop to supervise, and that Jefferson, the nervous author, was also close at hand. If so, the Declaration was not only written by the founders, but perhaps set into type and printed by them as well. In every way they could, these ink-splattered geniuses willed the document — and by extension the republic — into existence. We’ll never know for sure. But as Franklin might have appreciated: print the legend.
Over the next two days, the Dunlap broadsides were sent around the colonies — now states — and to dignitaries like George Washington, who ordered the Declaration read to his troops. A copy was also sent, as it had to be, to England, where the news was received with considerably less enthusiasm. These first printings may look less dramatic than the manuscript we know and love, but they were created closer to the germinal moment than anything known to exist.
So where are the Dunlap broadsides today? At the moment, 25 are known to exist, primarily in museums and libraries in the original 13 colonies. For generations they were static, but that is no longer true. Five have changed hands since 1980, and in 1989, a new Dunlap was discovered in the back of a painting. In 2000 it sold for $8.14 million to a consortium that included the TV producer Norman Lear, who has been sending it around the country.
This has brought the Declaration to some new constituencies, including a recent visit to Las Vegas, where it was displayed at Madame Tussaud’s, near replicas of Elvis Presley, Evel Knievel and Hugh Hefner. Today it is on display in San Diego, before resuming a journey to Houston, Salt Lake City and parts unknown.
Perhaps the Declaration’s travels to unlikely destinations far outside the original jurisdiction of the Continental Congress would have pleased the founders. After all, freedom is something of an act of interpretation, and it is desirable to bring the great charter into contact with as many Americans as possible, so they can contemplate its verities and not-quite-verities.
It would be gratifying to point to a single Declaration and proclaim it the fountainhead of our rights. But to do so would be to assert a truth that is not quite as self-evident as we would like. The Declaration is surely a national treasure — but like many treasures, the quest it inspires may ultimately be more rewarding than the illusion of possession. Perhaps it is safest to say that this precious document, with all its flaws and variants, belongs to an American people not unlike itself.