Discover Vintage America - JULY 2019

Early versions of the Declaration of Independence occasionally emerge

Q: I bought a large, old atlas book at a garage sale and while thumbing through it I found a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I have not taken it anywhere to be verified as the real thing or what it might be worth. Any assistance you can give me would be appreciated.

A: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

This document was crafted in 1776. By issuing the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the 13 American colonies severed their political connections to Great Britain. The Declaration summarized the colonists' motivations for seeking independence. There are several versions or printers of the Declaration of Independence.

The typical size for the Declaration and reprints is 11¾ x 14¾ inches. Any copies that have this exact handwritten appearance, and are under 20 x 30 inches, are reproductions. Many of the larger size copies are as well, but there we have to be careful, as there are some quite valuable full-size early reproductions.

However, your Declaration is a contemporary piece. The type, color of paper, layout and inclusion of the Bill of Rights indicate that it doesn't have any age to it. Current resale value is $15 or less.
If anyone thinks that they have an 18th century version of the Declaration, it needs to be examined in person by someone who specializes in historic documents.
Following are some versions that can appear:

The first official printing

Printed on the night of July 4, 1776,the Dunlap broadsides (a sizable sheet of paper printed on one side) were the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence. Approximately 200 broadsides were printed that night. John Hancock's famous signature was not on this document, but his name appeared in large type under "Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress," with secretary Charles Thomson listed as a witness.
Once the printing was complete, over the next two days each of the 13 colonies received a broadside, others were sent to the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, who directed that the Declaration be read to the troops on July 9. As of today, the location of 25 broadsides is known, the last one was found behind a framed painting purchased for one dollar at a garage sale.

The first unofficial printing

With his Pennsylvania Evening Post, Benjamin Towne created the first evening newspaper and the first tri-weekly paper in America. This gave him a huge advantage when it came to news items, including the Declaration of Independence. On July 2 since he printed in the evening, Towne was able to include a brief announcement in his newspaper: "This day the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES." On his next print day, Thursday the 4th, John Dunlap was still the only printer with the text of the Declaration. By Saturday the 6th, Towne had obtained a copy of the text, and printed the Declaration of Independence as front-page news.

Other newspapers

After Towne's Evening Post, the Declaration of Independence was printed in five other newspapers in Philadelphia, and the text spread to newspapers throughout the other states (and eventually to England and Europe). These newspaper versions are occasionally displayed, but often kept in newspaper collections.

The signed and engrossed parchment

After the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress, it was ordered to be engrossed (handwritten) on parchment and signed by the delegates. The engrosser was most likely Timothy Matlack, one of Secretary Charles Thomson's assistants. Matlack completed the parchment by Aug. 2, and members of the Continental Congress who were present began signing over the next several months. In the 20th century, custody transferred to the Library of Congress, and then to the National Archives.

The first facsimile

With a resurgence of patriotic fervor after the War of 1812, there was a wave of nostalgia while just a few of the Founding Fathers remained alive. An engraving of the Declaration was the first published facsimile based on the original manuscript. Benjamin Owen Tyler, a self-taught calligrapher and instructor of penmanship, penned a decorative version of the text followed by exact copies of the signatures.

The Stone printing

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams decided to order a new and exact facsimile to be made by William J. Stone. 200 copies of Stone's exact facsimile, printed on vellum, were distributed by order of Congress in 1824. 4,000 copies were printed on paper in 1833 and are the basis of the millions of museum store-type replicas seen today.

The most important thing is to read the text of the Declaration of Independence.


Note: All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to publisher@discoverypub.com. Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to www.michelleknowsantiques.com for a one-on-one appraisal.