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Declaration of Independence

Southwick Broadside

The regular designated viewing hours for the Declaration of Independence exhibit in Olin Library are Monday-Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

An exhibit of a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence is now open at John M. Olin Library.

More than a year after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to break all ties with Britain and to declare this decision to the new nation and the world. On July 4, 1776, two days after the approval of a resolution dissolving all allegiance to Britain, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence to formally announce the creation of a new sovereign nation, referring to it by a name never before used in a public document: “the United States of America.” Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration, which John Adams and Benjamin Franklin edited.

That evening, Congress directed John Dunlap to print copies, known as broadsides, to be sent to every state and the Continental Army. The handwritten copy of the Declaration on display at the National Archives was completed on August 2, 1776.

A copy of the “Dunlap Broadside” arrived in Rhode Island on July 6, 1776. Using that copy, Solomon Southwick printed 29 copies in Newport and distributed them throughout the state. This copy, known as the “Southwick Broadside,” was posted in Warwick and signed on the back by the town clerk.

When Henry Ward, secretary of the state assembly, signed the broadside, he became the first person to sign any copy of the Declaration, preceding even John Hancock, whose name was printed on the broadside to attest its authenticity.

Only 7 copies of the Southwick broadside exist, whereas 26 copies of the Dunlap broadside survive today. Before the Newman Family gave the Declaration broadside to Washington University in 2015, this document was among the last known copies in private hands.

Check out the Libraries’ Declaration of Independence Broadside in the News. To read more about the Declaration of Independence exhibition, check out the Q&A Session below where we caught up with the University Libraries’ Curator of Rare Books, Cassie Brand.

What’s special about University Libraries’ Declaration of Independence? What makes it rare? Our copy is one of the original Declarations of Independence, which was printed before the official handwritten copy (the one on display in the National Archives) was signed. It is also the first copy of any of the Declarations to have a signature.

Can you tell us about the chamber in which it’s displayed? Everything about the chamber was built specially for keeping the Declaration in the best condition possible. The lighting is very dim, and the case has its own temperature and humidity control. We are able to monitor the temperature and humidity to ensure the document’s safety.

Did any conservation work have to be done to the document? Was it cleaned? If so, what was that process like? If you take a close look at the Declaration and compare it to the digitized touchscreen version that’s in the chamber, you’ll be able to see some of the conservation work that was done. There was a tape around the edges that was removed, and the small holes along where the document had been folded have been filled in and colored to match the original paper. It was cleaned, first with dry techniques, like a soft brush or a rubber sponge. After they got as much dirt off as possible, the conservators gave the Declaration a bath! They submerged it in a water/alcohol mixture to reduce the staining and discoloration that had occurred over time.

Are there any idiosyncrasies or printing quirks in the text of the document? What can you tell us about the print quality? Copies of the Declaration were printed as quickly as possible, because they wanted to spread the news. Because of this, the first printing has a typo near the bottom of the document: it was printed on July 12, but incorrectly dated July 13. Our copy is the second printing with the correct date. Broadsides like these weren’t printed to last and because they were printed quickly, the printer most likely used materials he had at the ready, rather than going out to get the highest quality of paper.

Is there any speculation as to where the document was prior to 1941, when it was offered for sale by a private collector? It’s difficult to speculate, because there are so many possibilities! It could have been handed down in a family from generation to generation, or possibly locked away in a chest and discovered after years. I like to think that there was a discovery involved. The small holes along the old folds make me think that it had been folded for many years.