Declaration of Independence - Peter Force Printing
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“In Congress, July 4th 1776. The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America...” DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.
Copperplate engraving printed on thin wove paper. “In Congress, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Imprint at bottom left, “W. J. STONE SC WASHn” [William Stone for Peter Force, Washington, DC. ca. 1833]. 26” x 30”. Never folded.
By 1820 the original Declaration of Independence, now housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., already showed signs of age and wear from handling. John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, commissioned William J. Stone to engrave a facsimile – an exact copy –on a copper plate. There is still debate about whether Stone used a “wet” or chemical process to trace the original manuscript, helping to make the exact copy, but he expertly engraved it by hand over a long period of time. In any case, when he was done, in 1823, Congress ordered 200 official copies printed on vellum. We have had the privilege of handling 9 of the approximately 50 known copies of Stone’s first edition printings on vellum.
All subsequent exact facsimiles of the Declaration descend from the Stone plate. One of the ways to distinguish the first edition is Stone’s original imprint, top left: “ENGRAVED by W.J. STONE for the Dept. of State by order,” and continued top right: “of J. Q. Adams, Sec of State July 4, 1823.” Sometime after Stone completed his printing, his imprint at top was removed, and replaced with a shorter imprint at bottom left, “W. J. STONE SC WASHn,” as seen on this document, just below George Walton’s printed signature. The shorter imprint was copied on subsequent plates.
Most descriptions date the “Force” printing to 1848, consistent with the publication of Peter Force’s American Archives: A Documentary History of the United States of America, Series V, Volume I, which included the Declaration facsimile. But Force had already procured the Declaration facsimiles 15 years earlier, when Congress authorized the American Archives project, and the State Department signed a contract for 1,500 copies. On July 21, 1833 the original engraver, William Stone, invoiced Force for 4,000 imprints of the Declaration. Perhaps Force thought he would sell as many as 2,500 additional copies of American Archives by subscription. After mounting expenses and increasing delays in producing Series IV, by 1843, when Force received Congressional re-authorization, he had scaled back his subscription plan to 500 copies.
This Force printing, the second edition of the first exact facsimile, remains one of the best representations of the Declaration as the manuscript looked over 150 years ago, prior to its nearly complete deterioration – very little of the original is legible today. Force imprints that were never folded, thus lacking the physical protection of the book, are far more rare on the market than folded copies.
Peter Force (1790-1868) was a noted archivist and historian who compiled The American Archives, originally planned as a series of more than twenty folio volumes publishing the most important original materials from American history, from the 17th century through 1789. Authorized by Congress in 1833, the first volume was published in 1837. The project was abruptly canceled in 1853 by Secretary of State William Learned Marcy, and Force ultimately sold his enormous collection of documents to the Library of Congress for $100,000.