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The Declaration of Independence - A Brief History by Stanley L. Klos -- Authenticate your Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence
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"The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was 'to form a more perfect Union.' " Abraham Lincoln First Inaugural

On June 7th, 1776 Richard Henry Lee brought the following resolution before the Continental Congress of the United Colonies:


``Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and inde­pendent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.'' [i]

On Saturday, June 8th, Lee's resolution for independence derived from the May 15, 1776 Resolves of the Virginia Convention  was referred to a committee of the whole (the entire Continental Congress), and they spent most of that day as well as Monday, June 10th debating independence. The chief opposition for independence came mostly from Pennsylvania, New York and South Carolina.  Thomas Jefferson reported that they "were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem." Since Congress could not agree more time was needed

"to give an opportunity to the delegates from those colonies which had not yet given authority to adopt this decisive measure, to consult their constituents .. and in the meanwhile, that no time be lost, that a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration". [ii]

Accordingly, on June 11th a Committee of Five was chosen with Thomas Jefferson of Virginia being picked unanimously as its first member. Congress also chose John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee assigned Jefferson the task of producing a draft Declaration, as proposed in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, for its consideration.

John Adams in his autobiography recalls this of Jefferson’s selection as Chairman:

“Mr. Jefferson had been now about a Year a Member of Congress, but had attended his Duty in the House but a very small part of the time and when there had never spoken in public: and during the whole Time I satt with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together. The most of a Speech he ever made in my hearing was a gross insult on Religion, in one or two Sentences, for which I gave him immediately the Reprehension, which he richly merited. It will naturally be enquired, how it happened that he was appointed on a Committee of such importance. There were more reasons than one. Mr. Jefferson had the Reputation of a masterly Pen. He had been chosen a Delegate in Virginia, in consequence of a very handsome public Paper which he had written for the House of Burgesses, which had given him the Character of a fine Writer. Another reason was that Mr. Richard Henry Lee was not beloved by the most of his Colleagues from Virginia and Mr. Jefferson was sett up to rival and supplant him. This could be done only by the Pen, for Mr. Jefferson could stand no competition with him or any one else in Elocution and public debate.” [iii]

Jefferson's writing of the original draft took place in seventeen days between his appointment to the committee until the report of draft presented to Congress on June 28th. Thomas Jefferson drew heavily on George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights (passed on June 12, 1776), Common Sense, state and local calls for independence, and his own work on the Virginia Constitution.

Jefferson's original rough draft was first submitted to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams for their thoughts and changes. Jefferson wrote "… because they were the two members of whose judgments and amendments I wished most to have the benefit before presenting it to the Committee". [iv]

Draft Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Click Here to enlarge


The entire committee reviewed the Declaration after Franklin and Adams's changes. After much discussion 26 additional changes were made from Jefferson's original draft. The Committee presented it to Congress on Friday June 28th which ordered it to lie on the table.

According to historian John C. Fitzpatrick the Declaration's


"... genesis roughly speaking, is the first three sections of George Mason's immortal composition (Virginia Declaration of Rights), Thomas Jefferson's Preamble to the Virginia Constitution, and Richard Henry Lee's resolution..."[v]


Congress was called to order on July 1st at 9am and serious debate consumed most of that hot and humid Monday. Late in the day it was apparent that the delegates from Pennsylvania and South Carolina were not ready to pass the Lee resolution for Independence. Additionally the two delegates from Delaware were split so debate was postponed until the following day.

On the morning of July 2, 1776 the New York Delegates wrote the newly elected Provincial Congress in NYC for instructions as the vote for independence was eminent. The NY Provincial Congress had adjourned due to the British Fleet's arrival off Sandy Hook. Their letter was held until the NY Provincial Congress reconvened in White Plains.  Congress opened that morning with both Robert Morris and John Dickinson deliberately “abstaining” on the vote for independence by not attending the session.  The remaining Pennsylvania delegation voting yes for independence. [vi] South Carolina leader's son, Arthur Middleton, chose to ignore his absent and ailing father's loyalist wishes changing the colony's position to yes. Finally the  Caesar Rodney, who was summoned by fellow delegate Thomas McKean, [vii] arrived suffering from a serious facial cancer and afflicted with asthma after riding 80 miles through the rain and a lightening storm. He broke Delaware's 1 to 1 deadlock by casting the third vote for independence. All 12 colonies, except for NY whose delegates were not empowered to vote, adopted the July 2, 1776 resolution, introduced by Richard Henry Lee and John Adams, declaring independence from Great Britain.

Richard Henry Lee's Resolution
Courtesy of the National Archives

John Adams would write 29 years later on this July 2, 1776 debate: 


“The Subject had been in Contemplation for more than a Year and frequent discussions had been had concerning it. At one time and another, all the Arguments for it and against it had been exhausted and were become familiar. I expected no more would be said in public but that the question would be put and decided. Mr. Dickinson however was determined to bear his Testimony against it with more formality. He had prepared himself apparently with great Labour and ardent Zeal, and in a Speech of great Length, and all his Eloquence, he combined together all that had before been written in Pamphlets and News papers and all that had from time to time been said in Congress by himself and others. He conducted the debate, not only with great Ingenuity and Eloquence, but with equal Politeness and Candour: and was answered in the same Spirit.No Member rose to answer him: and after waiting some in hopes that some one less obnoxious than myself, who was still had been all along for a Year before, and still was represented and believed to be the Author of all the Mischief, I determined to speak.

It has been said by some of our Historians, that I began by an Invocation to the God of Eloquence. This is a Misrepresentation. Nothing so puerile as this fell from me. I began by saying that this was the first time of my Life that I had ever wished for the Talents and Eloquence of the ancient Orators of Greece and Rome, for I was very sure that none of them ever had before him a question of more Importance to his Country and to the World. They would probably upon less Occasions than this have begun by solemn Invocations to their Divinities for Assistance but the Question before me appeared so simple, that I had confidence enough in the plain Understanding and common Sense that had been given me, to believe that I could answer to the Satisfaction of the House all the Arguments which had been produced, notwithstanding the Abilities which had been displayed and the Eloquence with which they had been enforced. Mr. Dickinson, some years afterwards published his Speech. I had made no Preparation beforehand and never committed any minutes of mine to writing.

Before the final Question was put, the new Delegates from New Jersey came in, and Mr. Stockton, one of them Dr. Witherspoon and Mr. Hopkinson, a very respectable Characters, expressed a great desire to hear the Arguments. All was Silence: No one would speak: all Eyes were turned upon me. Mr. Edward Rutledge came to me and said laughing, Nobody will speak but you, upon this Subject. You have all the Topicks so ready, that you must satisfy the Gentlemen from New Jersey. I answered him laughing, that it had so much the Air of exhibiting like an Actor or Gladiator for the Entertainment of the Audience, that I was ashamed to repeat what I had said twenty times before, and I thought nothing new could be advanced by me. The New Jersey Gentlemen however still insisting on hearing at least a Recapitulation of the Arguments and no other Gentleman being willing to speak, I summed up the Reasons, Objections and Answers, in as concise a manner as I could, till at length the Jersey Gentlemen said they were fully satisfied and ready for the Question, which was then put and determined in the Affirmative.” [viii]

John Adams wrote Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776:

Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony "that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do."


You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell'd Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days. On July 2, 1776 the Association known as United Colonies of America officially became the United States of America .[ix]


Consequently, it was the date of July 2, 1776 that John Adams thought would be celebrated by future generations of Americans writing to his wife Abigail Adams a second letter on July 3, 1776:


But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. [x]

After the resolution was passed the Continental Congress turned to the debate over the language in the Committee of Five's formal Declaration of Independence. Time was short and Congress adjourned until Wednesday the 3rd. The debates of July 3rd and 4th altered the manuscript and with these changes the Declaration of Independence was considered by the committee of the whole. Thomas Jefferson was disappointed by the "depredations" made by Congress writing:


"The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censure on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under these censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others." [xi]

Despite these July 4th changes and previous committee edits Jefferson is rightfully considered the main author of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams in his autobiography recalls this of Jefferson’s pen:

The Committee had several meetings, in which were proposed the Articles of which the Declaration was to consist, and minutes made of them. The Committee then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me, to draw them up in form, and cloath them in a proper Dress. The Sub Committee met, and considered the Minutes, making such Observations on them as then occurred: when Mr. Jefferson desired me to take them to my Lodgings and make the Draught. This I declined and gave several reasons for declining. 1. That he was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian. 2. that he was a southern Man and I a northern one. 3. That I had been so obnoxious for my early and constant Zeal in promoting the Measure, that any draught of mine, would undergo a more severe Scrutiny and Criticism in Congress, than one of his composition. 4thly and lastly and that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great Opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own. I therefore insisted that no hesitation should be made on his part. He accordingly took the Minutes and in a day or two produced to me his Draught. [xii]

Late in the afternoon on July 4th, 1776 twelve of the thirteen colonies an reached agreement to formally proclaim themselves as free and independent nations. Only New York was the lone holdout and it was due to the fact the Delegates were not granted the authority to vote yea or nay on Independence.


This was a Proclamation that was long overdue as the fighting between the American colonists and the British forces had been going on for over a year. The Declaration, on July 4th, 1776, firstly memorialized what history has judged to be a just, moral and most persuasive treatise on why the colonies had the right to declare their independence from Great Britain. The July 2nd vote put the world on notice of the Colonies’ independence. It was, however, the Declaration’s proclamations that were designed to win the hearts and minds of the American Colonists who would be asked to continue a seemingly insuperable war against King and country. Therefore, it was essential that the Delegates not rely on the newspapers to disseminate its message to the people as most colonists could not afford the cost of pur­chasing a paper. Consequently, in the evening of July 4, 1776 John Hancock's Congress ordered:


“That the declaration be authenticated and printed That the committee appointed to prepare the declaration superintend and correct the press. That the 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, and that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army.” [xiii]


In accordance with the above order Philadelphia printer John Dunlap was given the task to print broadside copies of the agreed-upon declaration to be signed in type only by Continental Congress President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson.  Since New York had not approved the Declaration of Independence the word Unanimous does not appear on the July 4, 1776 Broadside.

Click Image to Enlarge

Broadside Produced during the night of July 4, 1776, by printer John Dunlap - Courtesy of the National Archives

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John Dunlap is thought to have printed 200 Broadsides that July 4th evening which were distributed to the members of Congress on July 5th. It is a known fact that John Hancock sent a copy on July 5th, 1776 to the Committee of Safety of Pennsylvania, a copy to the Convention of New Jersey, and a copy to Colonel Haslet with instructions to have it read at the head of his battalion. In addition John Adams sent one copy, and Elbridge Gerry two copies, to friends.

The Declaration, as affirmatively voted on July 4th, was not signed on that day by the attending delegates. The New York Delegates were required by their legislature to abstain from voting or signing any instrument of independence. John Hancock in an attempt to quickly gain the unanimous consent from all thirteen colonies sent a Dunlap broadside off to the NY Provincial Congress on Saturday July 6th.


The Declaration of Independence arrived, along with the NY Continental Congress Delegates' July 2nd letter  at the Provincial NY Congress new meeting site at White Plains on July 9th.  The members, at once, referred the letter and a a copy of the Declaration of Independence to a committee from headed by John Jay who had been an absent member from the Continental Congress due to his duties in the New York Provincial Congress. John Jay, as chairman, reported a resolution of his own drafting, which was unanimously adopted independence: "That the reasons assigned by the Continental Congress for declaring the United Colonies free and independent States are cogent and conclusive; and that while we lament the cruel necessity which has rendered that measure unavoidable, we approve the same, and will, at the risk of our lives and fortunes, join with the other colonies in supporting it." [xiv] NY also adopted Jay's resolution that "five hundred copies of the Declaration of Independence be ... published in handbills and sent to all the County committees in this State." The next day the style of the New York House was changed to the "Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York."  


The New York Resolution was laid before the Continental Congress on July 15th so then and not before was it proper to entitle the document "The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen States of America." Among the resolutions passed by the Continental Congress on July, 4th 1776 was one that called for the President John Hancock to send to several commanding officers of the Continental army Dunlap printings of the Declaration of Independence, Hancock sent a copy of the resolutions together with the "Dunlap Broadside" of the Declaration to General George Washington on July 6, 1776. Washington had the Declaration read to his assembled troops in New York on July 9th. Later that night, the Americans destroyed a bronze and lead statue of King George III, which stood at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green in celebration of the Nation’s Independence. Washington's personal copy of the Dunlap printing of the Declaration of Independence remains in the Manuscript Division's George Washington Papers .[xxviii]

Today only twenty-five of these Dunlap broadsides are known to exist. The original working copy(ies) of the Declaration of Independence that was signed by Hancock and Thomson on July 4, 1776 is/are lost. All we have left from the actual July 4th event are the drafts and printings of John Dunlap. One of these unsigned "Dunlap Broadsides", as it reported to have sold for $8.14 million in an August 2000 New York City Auction.
[xv] This copy was discovered in 1989 by a man browsing in a flea market who pur­chased a painting for four dollars because he was interested in the frame. Concealed in the back­ing of the frame was an original Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence.

The other printings of the Dunlap Broadside known to exist are dispersed among private owners, American and British institutions. The following are the current know locations of the Dunlap Broadsides.

Harvard University, Houghton Library  - Massachusetts Historical Society  - Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library - New York Historical Society - New York Public Library - American Philosophical Society - Historical Society of Pennsylvania - Independence National Historical Park - Maryland Historical Society - Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division  - Library of Congress, Manuscript Division - National Archives and Records Service   -Indiana University, Lilly Library -University of Virginia, Alderman Library - Public Record Office, London, England (Admiralty Records) - Public Record Office, London, England (Colonial Office 5) - Chicago Historical Society - Maine Historical Society - William H. Scheide, Scheide Library, Princeton, New Jersey - Ira G. Corn, Jr., and Joseph P. Driscoll, Dallas, Texas - Anonymous, New York, New York - Chew Family, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - John Gilliam Wood, Edenton, North Carolina - Anonymous, purchased at Sotheby's, December 1990 - Visual Equities, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia [xvi]


In 1776 as the Delegates returned home with their personal copies of the Dunlap Broadside each State decided on how to disseminate the Declaration of Independence to its citizens. Some states, like Virginia, chose newspapers while others, like New York,  ordered official State Broadsides to be printed from the Dunlap Declaration of Independence. The official printing, for instance, ordered by Massachusetts was to be distributed to ministers of all denominations, to be read to their congregations. News of the declaration was proclaimed in every parish of Massachusetts via this state printed broadside. In the absence of other media, broadsides were subsequently distributed out among the colonies and tacked to the walls of churches and other meeting places to spread news of America's independence. These state broadsides all had the July 4th date but many adding the corrected language "Unanimous Declaration" to their headings with NY's ascension on July 9th.

Click Here to enlarge a Massachusetts Broadside
Courtesy of Stanley L. Klos
was replevined in 2001 by the State of Maine

Man Battles to Keep his Copy of the Declaration of Independence

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Another Philadelphia Printer, Henrich Millers, produced a German Newspaper in 1776 called the Pennsylvanisher staatsbote. On July 9, 1776 the newspaper printed a full German translation of the American Declaration of Independence and reported:


"Yesterday at noon, the Declaration of Independence, which is published on this news paper's front page, was publicly proclaimed in English from an elevated platform in t he courtyard of the State House. Thereby the United Colonies of North America were absolved from all previously pledged allegiance to the king of Great Britain, they are and henceforth will be totally free and independent. The proclamation was read by Colonel Nixon, sheriff Dewees stood by his side and many members of the Congress, of the [Pennsylvania] Assembly, generals and other high army officers were also pres­ent. Several thousand people were in the courtyard to witness the solemn occasion. After the reading of the Declaration there were three cheers and the cry: God bless the free states of North America! To this every true friend of these colonies can only say, Amen. " [xvii]


Miller did prepare a full printing of the Declaration of Independence in a German-language broad­side on July 9th but historian Karl J.R. Arndt of Clark University claims Miller was trumped by German printers Cist and Steiner. According to Clark, Cist and Steiner produced an ordinary laid paper German Declaration of Independence broadside, without a watermark, measuring 16 inch­es by 12 3/4 inches as early as July 6th, the day after Dunlap's printing .The author had the privilege to inspect and hold this historic broadside that is now in the archives of Gettysburg College. At the bottom center of the Declaration there is an imprint appears as "Philadelphia: Gedruckt bey Steiner und Cist, in der Zweyten-strasse."


Contrary to popular belief, two original July 5th, 1776 Dunlap printed broadsides with only Hancock and Thomson's names were the actual documents delivered to King George III notifying him of the resolution to absolve all ties with Great Britain. King George III never received a signed copy with a John Hancock’s signature large enough for him to read without his spectacles.  Aside from the Dunlap and Massachusetts broadsides there are 12 other  known contemporary broadside editions of the Declaration of Independence.  Nine have imprints identifying their printers and place of publication, while five carry no imprint.  The low survival rate of all of the contemporary regional printings of the Declaration-which were both utilitarian and intrinsically ephemeral-makes identification of their printers particularly difficult.  None of these have the names of the other signers aside from John Hancock and Charles Thomson. The other names of the signers were not made public until 1777.


In 1776, the Continental Congress had fled to Baltimore, Maryland due to mounting British victories. Congress re-convened on 20 December 1776 and stayed in session until March 4th, 1777. On January 18th, 1777, after victories at Trenton and Princeton, John Hancock's Congress ordered a true copy of the Declaration of Independence printed complete with the names of all the signers. Mary Katherine Goddard, a Baltimore Postmaster, Printer and publisher, was given the origi­nal engrossed copy of the Declaration to set the type in her shop. A copy of the Goddard printing was ordered to be sent to each state so the people would know the names of the signers:


Ordered, That an authenticated copy of the Declaration of Independency, with the names of the members of Congress subscribing the same, be sent to each of the United States, and that they be desired to have the same put upon record. [xviii]

Mary Katherine Goddard Declaration of Independence Broadside

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Today, there are nine known Goddard broadsides that can be found.

Library of Congress, Connecticut State Library of the late John W. Garrett, Maryland Hall of Records, Maryland Historical Society, Massachusetts Archives, New York Public Library, Library Company of Philadelphia, Rhode Island State Archives. [xix]


The Engrossed Declaration of Independence


After the Continental Congress learned N.Y. agreed to the declaration they ordered, on July 19, 1776, that the Declaration be

"fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of 'The unanimous decla­ration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." [xx]


Timothy Matlack, a Pennsylvanian who had assisted the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson prepared the official document in a large, clear hand. Matlack was also the "scribe" who wrote out George Washington's commission as commanding general of the Continental Army which was also signed by President John Hancock. Finally on August 2, 1776 the journal of the Continental Congress record reports: "The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed." which contradicts the popular belief that the Declaration was executed by all the delegates in attendance on July 4, 1776.

According to the -- National Archives and Records Administration:

"John Hancock, the President of the Congress, was the first to sign the sheet of parch­ment measuring 24¼ by 29¾ inches. He used a bold signature centered below the text. In accordance with prevailing custom, the other delegates began to sign at the right below the text, their signatures arranged according to the geographic location of the states they represented. New Hampshire, the northernmost state, began the list, and Georgia, the southernmost, ended it. Eventually 56 delegates signed, although all were not present on August 2. Among the later signers were Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, and Matthew Thornton, who found that he had no room to sign with the other New Hampshire delegates. A few delegates who voted for adoption of the Declaration on July 4 were never to sign in spite of the July 19 order of Congress that the engrossed document "be signed by every member of Congress."

Non-signers included John Dickinson, who clung to the idea of reconciliation with Britain, and Robert R. Livingston, one of the Committee of Five, who thought the Declaration, was premature." [xxi]

Click Here to View the ink stand used to sign the Declaration of Independence - Thank you Ranger Stewart A. W. Low


With the signatures of 56 brave delegates, this new nation born in freedom with an indivisible spirit, proclaimed on a singular piece of hand written parchment their Unanimous Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was safeguarded all throughout the revolutionary war traveling with the Continental Congress to maintain its safety. The National Archives lists the following locations of the Traveling Declaration since 1776:


Philadelphia: August-December 1776
Baltimore: December 1776-March 1777
Philadelphia: March-September 1777
Lancaster, PA: September 27, 1777
York, PA: September 30, 1777-June 1778
Philadelphia: July 1778-June 1783
Princeton, NJ: June-November 1783
Annapolis, MD: November 1783-October 1784
Trenton, NJ: November-December 1784
New York: 1785-1790
Philadelphia: 1790-1800
Washington, DC (three locations): 1800-1814
Leesburg, VA: August-September 1814
Washington, DC (three locations): 1814-1841
Washington, DC (Patent Office Building): 1841-1876
Philadelphia: May-November 1876
Washington, DC (State, War, and Navy Building): 1877-1921
Washington, DC (Library of Congress): 1921-1941
Fort Knox*: 1941-1944

Washington, DC (Library of Congress): 1944-1952

Washington, DC (National Archives): 1952-present *Except that the document was displayed on April 13, 1943, at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D. C. [xxii]


The original Declaration, now exhibited in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, has faded badly -- largely because of poor preservation techniques during the 19th century and the wet ink transfer process of 1820 utilized to make vellum copies.


The Wet Ink Transfer of the Declaration

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