The 1776 “engrossed” copy of the Declaration of Independence—sometimes referred to as the “official” or “signed parchment” version—stands on display in the rotunda of the National Archives Museum, providing inspiration to those who, like Abraham Lincoln, view it as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block…to tyranny and oppression.”
Sealed in a gold-plated titanium frame, with bulletproof glass and cutting-edge safeguards against light and moisture, it remains under constant surveillance by armed guards and security cameras. Every night, it is lowered into a vault (along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, considered the other essential founding documents of the United States). Arguably no other texts in the world receive the same level of protection.
Yet this has been a relatively newfound development. Prior to arriving at the National Archives, the “signed parchment” Declaration of Independence survived numerous trials and tribulations, including war, fire, casual mistreatment, insects and the ravages of time. Other early versions of the declaration, some similarly dating back to 1776, have also persisted to the present day and can fetch big money at auction.
How the Declaration of Independence Was Printed
When the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the manuscript was immediately rushed to the nearby shop of John Dunlap, who printed an estimated 200 poster-sized copies that night. These so-called Dunlap broadsides were then distributed throughout the 13 former colonies, including to General George Washington and his troops, and across the Atlantic as well. By July 6, newspapers had likewise begun publishing the declaration in their pages.
“As the text was printed and proclaimed in public readings across the colonies, communities tore down royal symbols and celebrated with toasts and huzzahs,” says Emily Sneff, a doctoral student of history at William & Mary, who is writing her dissertation on the Declaration of Independence.
But although the Dunlap broadside constituted the first public version of the declaration, it used simple type and didn’t include the names of the congressional delegates who had approved it. For a more official, formal version, the Continental Congress ordered on July 19 that the declaration be “fairly engrossed on parchment”—meaning it was to be painstakingly and ornately handwritten on animal skin—and signed by each delegate.
The scribe for this job is believed to have been Timothy Matlack, an assistant to the secretary of the Congress, who completed the task by August 2. Starting with John Hancock, 56 delegates, including a couple who opposed independence and others who missed the vote, then put their signatures on the document.
Though birthed in Philadelphia, the “signed parchment” declaration didn’t remain there for long. Under British threat, the Continental Congress evacuated to Baltimore in December 1776, taking the parchment along with it in a wagon. From there, assuming it continued traveling with Congress, the declaration briefly returned to Philadelphia and then jumped from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to York, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia again, to Princeton, New Jersey, to Annapolis, Maryland, to Trenton, New Jersey, and to New York City.
Following a fourth stop in Philly from 1790 to 1800, the Declaration of Independence was taken by boat to Washington, D.C., the newly-built capital, where it has remained for all but a few years ever since. As the National Archives points out, it was probably rolled and unrolled many times during its years on the road, thereby starting a process in which it gradually became more creased, stained, ripped and faded. There’s even a mysterious faint handprint on the parchment’s lower left side.
Under the custody of the State Department, the parchment was housed in various government buildings until the closing stages of the War of 1812, when British soldiers marched on Washington, D.C. Just prior to the city going up in flames, State Department clerk Stephen Pleasonton, who later claimed to have acted against the advice of the secretary of war, stuffed the declaration and other important documents in linen bags and whisked them off to Leesburg, Virginia. There, they remained safe at a private dwelling until returning to D.C. the following month.
The ”signed parchment” declaration again bounced around various D.C. buildings, most notably the old Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery), where it was exposed to “high light levels and extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations,” says Amy Lubick, senior conservator at the National Archives. She adds that “it was displayed at different times both vertically and horizontally.”
For a few months in 1876, the declaration was exhibited at Independence Hall in Philadelphia as part of the Centennial Exposition, then fortuitously moved to the State Department library in D.C. just months prior to a fire that ripped through the Patent Office.
Though considered flameproof, the declaration’s new living quarters contained an open fireplace and allowed for smoking, according to the National Archives. By this time, the document was really showing its age, with one writer calling it “old and yellow.” “All of the movements and attempts to display it over the decades took a significant toll on the ink,” Sneff says.
Because of concern over its condition, the State Department took down the Declaration of Independence in the 1890s and locked it away in a steel safe. But it was returned to public display by the 1920s after being transferred to the Library of Congress.
In December 1941, just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the declaration was rushed by train to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where it stayed until 1944. While there, two Harvard-affiliated conservators initiated the first documented attempt to mend it. Additional restoration work would take place in 2003.
Back at the Library of Congress, much effort went into protecting the declaration from light and air pollution. Yet humidity remained a problem, and protein-eating beetles were found in the vicinity. So, in 1952, under military escort, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were moved to their current home at the National Archives.
“We are enshrining these documents for future ages,” President Harry S. Truman said at the time. “This magnificent hall has been constructed to exhibit them, and the vault beneath, that we have built to protect them, is as safe from destruction as anything that the wit of modern man can devise.”
Other Versions of the Declaration of Independence
Reverence for the “signed parchment” version has only grown over time. “Americans tend to treat the signed parchment as the Declaration of Independence,” Sneff says.
As she points out, however, it was originally used only for internal government purposes. “If we focus [solely] on the signed parchment or the act of signing,” Sneff says, “we miss out on…how the declaration reached people outside of Congress, how they responded, and the text’s influence on other movements for independence or equality.”
The many other surviving versions include a fragment of the earliest known draft of the declaration; the so-called original rough draft; and a representation of the so-called “fair copy” that was ultimately presented to the Continental Congress.
In addition, 26 copies of the Dunlap broadside are known to still exist, and there are at least nine remaining broadsides printed in 1777 by Mary Katharine Goddard. Authorized by Congress after fleeing to Baltimore, the Goddard broadside was the first public version to list the names of the signers, and, Sneff explains, “demonstrates Congress's commitment to independence even after the British forced them to evacuate Philadelphia.”
Though not directly affiliated with Congress, local broadsides were likewise printed in various towns and cities during the Revolutionary War era.
Meanwhile, in 1823, William J. Stone produced another parchment version, having been authorized by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to create a facsimile of the famous engrossed copy (which by then had become worn). Particularly iconic, Stone’s work is the image of the declaration most often found in history textbooks.
Later, Stone’s friend Peter Force was commissioned to make one more version, for which he used Stone’s copperplate to print out copies on translucent tracing paper. Fewer than 40 original Stone copies presently remain, along with perhaps a couple hundred Force copies.
All of these versions slightly differ from each other, and, as Sneff says, each “has a story to tell.”