Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2009 Issue

$8 Million Declaration of Independence Found in Britain

Britnatarchdec

Copy of the Declaration of Independence recently discovered in the British National Archives.


By Michael Stillman

"We hold these truths to be self-evident..." It was the greatest statement of human rights at least since the Magna Carta, over half a millennium earlier. This statement of "self-evident" human rights, passed by the colonial Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, culminated with the representatives of those colonies declaring their independence from Great Britain. It would take seven years and many bloody battles before the English government accepted this declaration, but on that date, the colonists drew their line in the sand. The world would never be the same.

That night, the representatives rushed their proclamation off to Philadelphia printer John Dunlap. In the days before Twitter, email, text messaging and fax machines, television and radio, telephones and telegrams, the only way to spread a message was by printing up a broadside and delivering it by hand. The Continental Congress needed to get the message out to its constituencies as quickly as possible. So that night, or perhaps on the morning of July 5th, Dunlap printed what are believed to be around 200 copies. They spread like wildfire, with other printers across the colonies making copies to distribute to local residents. The Revolution was on.

Most people probably believe that the document with all of those signatures was the first copy distributed. Not so. Most of the representatives did not sign that document until late July or even August. Dunlap's copy was the first, and it contains the printed name of just one of those signers, the President of the Continental Congress and man of the nation's most famous autograph, John Hancock.

Any early copy of the Declaration of Independence is special, both historically and monetarily. However, none compare with this first edition. Only 26 copies of this printing are known to survive. The last such copy sold at auction went for over $8 million in 2000. It is unlikely that this one is worth less, and possibly significantly more. It is said to be in excellent condition.

The copy was found, in of all places, the British National Archives. The Archives already had two copies, but was unaware that they had another. It was discovered by accident by an American conducting research in the archives. So, what was it doing there? This is not clear, but most likely it was intercepted by British forces along with other colonial papers and eventually shipped off to the Archives long after the British and Americans resolved their differences.

Despite its great value and the duplication of copies, the National Archives has no plans to sell the document. They have expressed a willingness to loan it to American institutions for display, but they are not parting with its title. Of course, in light of current antiquities and government document laws, not to mention simple theft, perhaps some enterprising American will claim that this copy needs to be returned to the former colonies on the basis of any or all of those three legal claims. These types of claims have been made against private collectors. That would be an interesting case to watch.

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