What is a Dunlap Broadside?

Any guessers? No, it’s not a famous football tackle. It’s a printing of a document. A very important document: The Declaration of Independence.

The Dunlap broadsides were the first published copies of the United States Declaration of Independence, printed on the night of July 4, 1776, by John Dunlap of Philadelphia. Dunlap was born in Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland. After moving to America and inheriting a printing business from his uncle, Dunlap began the publication of the Pennsylvania Packet, or General Advertiser, a weekly newspaper.

During the American Revolutionary War, Dunlap became an officer in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, and served under George Washington at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He continued in the First City Troop after the war, rising to the rank of major.

In 1776, Dunlap secured a lucrative printing contract for the Continental Congress. In July 1776, fighting between the American colonists and the British forces had been going on for nearly a year. On July 2, the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence, and on July 4 they agreed to the final wording of the Declaration of Independence. Congress ordered the same committee charged with writing the document to “superintend and correct the press,” that is, supervise the printing. Dunlap was tasked with the job; he apparently spent much of the night of July 4 setting type, correcting it, and running off the broadside sheets. It is unknown exactly how many broadsides were originally printed, but the number is estimated at about 200. They became known as the Dunlap broadsides, which were the first published versions of the Declaration.

According to Ted Widmer, author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World. “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.”

The Dunlap broadsides were sent across the colonies over the next two days, including to George Washington, who directed that the Declaration be read to the troops. Another copy was sent to England.

The original handwritten Declaration of July 4 that was sent from Congress to Dunlap, “Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, JOHN HANCOCK, President. Attest, CHARLES THOMSON, Secretary,” (taken from bottom of a Dunlap broadside) has been lost.

Of the 27 surviving copies of the Dunlap broadside, 21 copies belong to universities, public libraries and a city hall. The remaining five are in private hands, although promised to public collections. While inspecting a tear in the lining behind a painting bought at a flea market, one owner discovered a folded Dunlap broadside. Sotheby’s and an independent expert authenticated this 25th copy of the Dunlap broadside. In June 2000, the document sold at an online Sotheby’s auction for $8.14 million.

The Declaration of Independence was not the only success for John Dunlap. In 1784, Dunlap’s newspaper became a daily with a new title: The North American and United States Gazette. It was not the first daily in the United States—but it became the first successful daily.

During the American Revolution, he prospered in real estate. After the war, he bought land in Kentucky. By 1795, when he was forty-eight, he was able to retire with a sizable estate. He died in Philadelphia in 1812.

Now exhibited at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The Declaration of Independence measures 29-3/4 inches by 24-1/2 inches. On the back, at the bottom, upside-down is simply written: “Original Declaration of Independence / dated 4th July 1776.”

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