The classic picture of the Declaration of Independence is a handwritten document made of calfskin. But printing presses existed in 1776 — Benjamin Franklin was even a printer in Philadelphia. So why was the declaration so backward for its time?
The true physical nature of the document says a lot about its meaning, both in the 1700s and today.
The declaration most Colonial Americans saw wasn't handwritten at all
The initial Declaration of Independence was breaking news — and for that reason, most Americans saw a typeset version.
The "press release" for the revolution appeared in the "Dunlap broadsides" — printed versions of the document made on July 4, 1776. Broadsides were the same format often used for posters or ads. "They're the first text of the declaration that's released," says Karie Diethorn, chief curator at Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park museum.
The broadsides, named for the printer who made them, don't have any of the familiar signatures at the bottom, but they were quick to create and distribute.
If people didn't happen to see those, they likely saw the text in the newspaper, like this one, the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence, from July 6, 1776:
The document used to be a string of text, not an immutable piece of vellum, enclosed behind museum glass. But there was a particular reason the revolutionaries made a fancy handwritten copy, too.
The handwritten declaration was a roll call
The declaration was signed almost a month after its adoption, on August 2, 1776 (of course, that date is the subject of controversy). After that, it wasn't circulated widely until almost a year later. By that time, the American revolt was old news. So why this signed version?
"It's the ultimate manifesto of enlightenment philosophy," Diethorn says. "It's a declaration of principles." In modern terms, it was a lot like a mission statement.
That task merited a more hallowed document than a typeset sheet — a handwritten one, penned by a scribe. As importantly, it called for accountability from the men who endorsed it. Diethorn says the Declaration of Independence served as a roll call for the men who supported the revolution and, consequently, treason against Britain. Including all those signatures on a handwritten page was appropriate for the significance of the dangerous commitment they'd made to revolution.
"It's evidence of their collective commitment," Diethorn says. "The reason for the formality is to say, 'We are dead serious.'"
That's also why it was put on vellum, material made from calfskin. The Continental Congress carried, rolled, and folded that copy to take it to many different locations during the Revolutionary War in order to preserve it and keep it safe from the British.
Even though most early Americans saw a very different physical version of the document, this one was considered the truly enduring version of the Declaration of Independence. And for early Americans, it was one of many ways of imagining independence.
Our idea of the Declaration of Independence is just one version of many
The most famous painting of the signing, completed by John Trumbull, is a fiction. As seen above, it incorporates a lot of creative license — it modifies the room itself (Diethorn says the real room looks nothing like it) and includes members who weren't present for the signing. But in a way, it's a fitting representation for a document that's been reimagined over the centuries.
Even what we picture when we hear "Declaration of Independence" is probably not the original handwritten version, which has faded dramatically over time. The Stone copies, named for their creator William Stone, were made in the 1820s, and they're the legible versions most of us are familiar with.
"The general opinion," Diethorn says, "is that he took some sort of transfer [pulling up a copy from the original] and used that to create an engraving plate." These highly accurate copies look great, but they aren't the original one that Congress carried around from one safe hiding spot to another.
You can slide between the original and a Stone copy below:
In the 1800s, it even took a while for that Stone facsimile to become the most recognizable copy, even though it was vastly more accurate than embellished ones like this one from 1819:
These many different versions show that the Declaration of Independence has significantly changed in the popular imagination, from a typeset document to a fanciful copy to the facsimile most of us envision. The intended meaning is easier to nail down than the appearance.
"It says this is when the modern world began," Diethorn says. And, ironically enough, we like to show the beginning of modernity through intentionally antiquated handwriting on a piece of parchment made from a baby cow.