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Declaration of Independence
Articles of Confederation
Cultural Impact


A Multitude of Amendments, Alterations and Additions

oday, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States represent three distinct phases in the process of establishing a unique system of American government. In simple terms, at the time of their creation each document was written to remedy a particular situation. The Declaration to separate from Great Britain, the Articles to raise money for the Continental Army, and the Constitution to address the weaknesses of the previous system. Although significantly different, these documents are each revered today for their unique contributions to American history. How did Americans' perception of these documents evolve during the nineteenth century? Why is it that the printed versions of these three documents are not widely recognized as being historic or directly related to the engrossed versions? Lastly, how did events of the nineteenth century shape our contemporary perception of these great documents? These questions highlight issues related to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century evolution of America's founding documents.

After its adoption, and throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Declaration of Independence was viewed primarily as a pronouncement of separation from Great Britain and not as the sacred political document it is today.(70) Beginning in 1777, celebrations were held to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration and the American colonies' separation from Britain. Elizabeth Drinker, wife of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker merchant, wrote almost annually in her diary about the raucous "Anniversary of Independence" celebrations in the city. The celebrations on July 4th included fireworks, parades, bell ringing, breaking windows, firing guns, mustering troops, and drunkenness. In Drinker's July 4th account for 1795, she stated

"Anniversary of Independence, 19 Years.-General Orders in News-paper this forenoon, for a fuss and to do,-I think, orders for peace and quietness, would be more commendable and consistant, in a well regulated Government or State,-those days seldom pass over without some melancholy accident occuring from riotous doings"-(71)

Drinker wrote again in 1801, "there has been guns firing, Drums beating from day break, rejoicing for Independence."(72) While some eighteenth-century citizens regarded July TH celebrations as troublesome, others participated in all aspects of commemoration.

Beginning in the 1790s, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists expressed their divergent views of the Declaration of Independence. The Anti-Federalists, opponents of the newly created Constitution of the United States, regarded the Declaration as representative of their beliefs and ideologies. When Thomas Jefferson was elected President, he was publicly recognized for his authorship of the Declaration and the Jeffersonian Republicans embraced its political sentiments as their own. The Federalists, on the other hand, did not honor Jefferson for his contribution to what they considered a radical document advocating revolution.(73)

During the early-nineteenth century, the prevailing perception of the Declaration changed with the development and growth of American nationalism. In 1801, the influence of the Federalist party faded when the Jeffersonian Republicans obtained control of American government and shaped American political ideology. Also, after the end of the War of 1812, Americans had a renewed interest in the Declaration and the Revolution as they reminisced about their past. As they looked back, Americans accumulated mementoes from the Revolutionary period in order to prevent the memory of it from fading.(74) The emotional and political climate in America at this time created an appropriate environment for publishers and artists to provide visual evocations of the venerable past, like historical images and facsimile signatures of important eighteenth-century statesmen.(75)

During the nineteenth century, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States, as physical artifacts, were not celebrated or revered in the same manner as the Declaration. The ideas contained in these two documents, unlike the Declaration, outlined the structure and powers of the Government in legal terms, making them more difficult to read and understand. With respect to the Constitution, during the first half of the nineteenth-century, political statesmen argued not only over the issue of constitutional interpretation, but also over the nature of that interpretation. Should the document be taken at face value or were other events and documents needed to understand the intent of the founding fathers?(76) However, by the mid-nineteenth century, the perception of the Constitution as a powerful symbol of American nationalism developed and Americans began to worship this founding document previously obscured from public consciousness.(77)

The engrossed copy of the Constitution was in storage for most of the nineteenth century, making it difficult for Americans to identify with that document. In 1885, while conducting research in the library of the State Department, J. Franklin James on noticed the Constitution of the United States was kept folded up in a little tin box in the lower part of a closet, while the Declaration of Independence, mounted with all elegance, was exposed to the view of all in the central room of the library. It was evident that the former document was an object of interest to very few of the visitors to Washington.(78)

The Bill of Rights, a document similar in nature to the Declaration, was adopted in 1791. The first ten amendments to the Constitution address personal liberties and freedoms. These rights or liberties, not addressed in the Constitution, provided a safeguard against dictatorial activities by the recently formed government.(79) Most Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not have a chance to become familiar with the Bill of Rights because the document remained in storage, like the engrossed versions of the Articles and the Constitution.(80)

Americans became familiar with these documents through engravings, newspapers, pamphlets, and books. Many Americans knew that when the three founding documents were approved, they were signed by their creators, so the public responded enthusiastically to facsimile handwritten documents with signatures, as opposed to the printed ones. These signatures represent the personal connection to the men who acted in the momentous events that shaped America's early history. Americans relive history through objects and places and, through these connections, identify with historical events. Even today, Americans look for handwritten signatures, actual or facsimile, as evidence of a document's age and validity. Nineteenth-century publishers copied the facsimile signatures from the Tyler and Binns prints because the Stone facsimile was not as readily accessible as the Tyler and Binns. Historic founding documents, like the Dunlap Broadside, that contain only the printed word and no signatures are not perceived as historic or old and, by extension, real.

As a way of preserving and reliving the past, Americans of the early-nineteenth century desired facsimile signatures of the founding fathers and important statesmen from the previous generation. Benjamin Owen Tyler and John Binns were among those who sought to exploit such public demand with their elaborate and decorative engravings of the Declaration. Tyler and Binns knew that, with accurate facsimile signatures of the signers, their engravings would appeal to more nineteenth-century Americans.

The competition between Tyler and Binns prompted other engravers, painters and writers to consider the Declaration as a means to market their talent.(81) During the thirty years after Tyler and Binns published their engravings, there was an average of five different editions of the Declaration published during each decade. In almost equal numbers, other editions were engraved and then printed on letter presses. These letter press editions, most often copied from the Tyler or Binns designs, were ornamented with portraits, monuments, emblems, scenes of historic sites, and allegorical figures. Whatever the chosen design or layout, the inclusion of the signers' names was almost universally employed. The signers' names, more often than not, were copied from Tyler's engraving. A few nineteenth-century publications include the signers' names in typeface, making them less historically vivid to consumers.(82)

The 1823 William J. Stone facsimile, produced as the official edition of the Declaration and based on the engrossed Declaration on parchment, did not include ornamentation. Since the Stone facsimile was not offered for sale, it was not readily available for early nineteenth-century printers to use as a guide for their designs or facsimile signatures.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the walls of most American homes were bare and inventories found less than one in ten households in possession of a painting, print, or engraving.(83) Households who could afford to purchase an engraving of the Declaration might display it in a parlor or drawing room. The engravings executed by Tyler and Binns were offered at five and ten dollars respectively. By the 1830s, engravers and booksellers had increased their volume but the cost of the prints still reserved them for a small minority of the population.(84)

Early nineteenth-century engravers and publishers believed that their versions of the Declaration deserved a place of honor in the households of their subscribers. Tyler and Binns hoped individuals would revere the Declaration as they would an oil painting or an historical print. Americans responded to objects that were distinctly American in nature, such as the flag, images of George Washington, and the Declaration, which evoked feelings of patriotism. Households celebrated their American identity and the cultural and patriotic significance of emerging nationalism through display and acquisition of such objects.(85) In France, the Marquis de Lafayette received two copies of the Stone facsimile and a Binns engraving of the Declaration, one of which he hung on his bedroom wall. Lafayette's copy of the Declaration was exhibited with a framed copy of France's Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was based partly on theories contained in the Declaration.(86)

By the 1850s, there was a proliferation of editions of the Declaration of Independence available for purchase. In antebellum America, interest in the Declaration accelerated as the issue of slavery gained attention. Individuals in northern and southern states sought to reconcile and define the relationship between the principles outlined in the Declaration and the institution of slavery. Reprintings of the Declaration reached a high level in the 1850s with the appearance of eight different editions.

Later, the Centennial commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration also inspired numerous editions of that document. In 1876, at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, visitors could purchase numerous printed copies of the Declaration of Independence. A copy of Jefferson's rough draft printed in pamphlet form sold thirty-five thousand copies. Some of the souvenir Declarations offered for sale contained advertisements while others were hastily produced from a hand press for quick profit. The printers at the Exposition capitalized on society's prevailing interest in the past.(87)

The emergence and appearance of early nineteenth-century engraved copies of the Declaration of Independence influenced the twentieth-century perception of that document. Although the Declaration was printed in most states after its adoption and many Americans were aware of its existence, the physical appearance of the document remained a mystery. Most Americans of the post-Revolutionary generation were introduced to the Declaration through the engravings executed by Benjamin Owen Tyler and John Binns.(88)

Today, individuals observe the tradition of July 4th, 1776 in ways similar to those of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans. Celebrations commemorating the adoption of the Declaration continue each year with fireworks, parades, and barbecues. In 1941, after more than one hundred and fifty years of commemorating independence, Congress officially declared July 4th a national holiday.

In addition to Independence Day festivities, visitors to Independence National Historical Park honor the founding documents by purchasing modern copies similar to the historic engrossed versions. Although most visitors view the twentieth-century facsimile documents as souvenirs rather than art, those facsimile documents are significant because they represent a desire to preserve and acquire a piece of American history. The inclusion of facsimile signatures on the twentieth-century copies of the founding documents provides authentication and association to these great documents that shaped American history.


Last Modified: Fri, Jan 17 2003 07:08:48 am PDT

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