July 4

“In Congress, July 4, 1776.A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.” Thus reads the heading of the first printed copy of America’s most famous document. The engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed by most of the members of Congress, is the one most readily recognized as the official “first edition,” but actually it was not written and signed until August 2nd. The printed copy became the official copy as it was inserted into the Minutes of Congress.

The printer to whom the Declaration was entrusted was John Dunlap, who had come from Ireland as a boy and had learned the printer’s craft in the office of his uncle, William Dunlap. He established his own business in Philadelphia in 1765. In 1771 he founded a weekly newspaper, the Pennsylvania Packett; and the General Advertiser, which in 1784 with a slight change of name became one of the earliest daily newspapers to be published in the United States.

When printer Dunlap received the manuscript of the Declaration to put it into type, he obviously had a “rush job” on his hands, as he was ordered to complete the job with the utmost dispatch. He has been roundly criticized for his typographical errors, about which it was said that the capitalization and punctuation followed “neither previous copies, nor reason, nor the custom of any age known to man.” As Dunlap in all probability had to set his type by candlelight, from copy which may have been rapidly written, there are doubtless many reasons for the errors. There is certainly no chance of checking the copy, as it no longer exists. Dunlap had no way of knowing that he had produced a great historical document, and was therefore not at all concerned with the manuscript which he received from Congress.

For his broadside, the printer used a sheet of paper which measured fifteen by eighteen inches, the type form being twelve by seventeen inches. The type was Caslon Oldstyle, in the English casting which was commonly used by the Colonial printers. The main body was set in the size then called English, which is about 14-point. There are no signatures on this printed copy, but the name of John Hancock appears as President of the Congress, as does that of Charles Thomson, the Secretary. The only other name on the document is that of the printer. There is no record of the number of copies printed, but Congress had ordered that copies be sent to all the assemblies and conventions, to the various councils and committees of safety, and to the commanding officers of the continental troops. All of this took some time. One writer has stated that if horses ran any faster in 1776 than they did in the time of the Roman emperors, the American roads were worse. The resulting celebrations throughout the Colonies were therefore dated upon the receipt of the broadsides.

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