💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
The Declaration of Independence is one of the most widely copied documents in American history. It’s without a doubt one of the two most famous pieces of paper (*waves at U.S. Constitution*) to ever come out of Philadelphia.
The authors and signers of the nation’s founding document get all the attention. But at the time, it was the equivalent of breaking news. And word was spread not via the handwritten curio enshrined in the National Archives, but by type-set copies made by a hard-working Philly printer.
That printer was one John Dunlap — 1770s Irish immigrant, newspaperman and Revolutionary War veteran.
It’s thanks to Dunlap’s quick work that news of America’s independence began percolating through the colonies. The 200 printed copies he made are known among historians as “the Dunlap broadsides,” and they’re all considered extremely rare. But before they were printed off and sent out, there was a rough draft that contained some of Thomas Jefferson’s personal notes — which never made it into the final print.
That’s the original Dunlap proof, a rare historical document that’s now preserved in the Pennsylvania Historical Society under National Treasure-level security.
Rise of a Philly printer
Born in 1747 in Strabane, a small town in Northern Ireland, Dunlap immigrated to Philadelphia where he found work in his uncle’s printing shop in what is now Old City.
Historians remember him as a hard-working and capable apprentice. When the elder Dunlap followed a calling to the priesthood a decade later, he left the business in the trust of his twenty-something Irish nephew.
Dunlap kept up the churn by printing sermons, books and broadsides — large, one-sided papers used for ads and pronouncements. In the early 1770s, he expanded into the newspaper business and started to print the weekly called the Pennsylvania Packet or General Advertiser, which would later grow into one of the earliest “successful” American dailies.
His claim to fame would come in July 1776, in the turbulent hours after the young American government voted to secede from Great Britain.
When the Founding Fathers completed their handwritten draft declaring their independence from King George, they needed a trusted local printhand to set the type and run off several hundred sheets to spread the word.
Dunlap’s shop sat a few blocks away on 2nd and Market Street. Just 29 years old, he threw himself into the challenge.
Thomas Jefferson’s ‘quotation’ marks = the first original print
There’s only a few hundred “original” copies that Dunlap first produced in those frenetic hours, but there’s one that’s more original than the others, according to Lee Arnold, the director of the library and collections at the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
That’s the first reproduction, which Dunlap made directly from Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten original.
Jefferson was known for using diacritical markings in his handwritten copy — little notations to assist his inflection during public speaking. They look like quotation marks scattered around the page, and were likely used to cue either breathing pauses or emphasis in speech.
Those markings are what identify Dunlap’s first proof of the document.
“Those quotation marks are not part of the Declaration of Independence and not part of the other Dunlap printings,” Arnold said. “We believe Jefferson gave Dunlap his copy, and Dunlap made one copy, and said, ‘What do you think?'”
Jefferson’s response, as Arnold retells it: “Get those diacritics out of there! Those are just my own internal notes that I have for myself on how to read this thing out loud!”
The Dunlap broadside copies were then printed — sans quotation marks — and set in public spaces around town to pronounce the nation’s freedom from overseas rule.
The OG Dunlap copy is Philly’s real ‘national treasure’
Today, those original couple hundred broadsides are considered rare historical documents. But Dunlap’s proof with Jefferson’s hand-written notes is the rarest of them all.
The original document, now housed at the Pennsylvania Historical Society along with one of Dunlap’s early printings of the Constitution, is almost never on public display. Only on special occasions will curators bring the Dunlap proof out from its secured vault.
“We take our notion of treasures and national treasures seriously,” Arnold said. “It’s a fine balance. We don’t want to treat it flippantly. On the other hand we want people to see it. Because people need to understand about the history — and it is unique because of those quotation marks in there.”
A historian doing research on early American typography would be able to make an appointment. But a random tourist off the street who wants to see the first copy? Not so much.
Atmosphere and security are everything for the document’s preservation.
“Sixty-eight degrees, plus or minus two degrees, 45 percent humidity, plus or minus 5 percentage points,” Arnold said. “We keep it under five sets of locks, and it’s cool, dry [and] dark. It’ll last forever.”
If you’re really itching for a view, make nice with Arnold. He’s one of just two people who have the key to the safe.