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A Remarkable Find After 177 Years: A Long-Lost Official William J. Stone Copy of the Declaration of Independence, Presented in 1824 to Signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton (SOLD)
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The Carroll copy shown here sold for a record $4,420,000 at Freeman’s on July 1, 2021.

I was thrilled to be called on to help authenticate and sell this rare printing of the Declaration. When I saw my first one in 1991, 31 Stone Declarations were known. Through discoveries in museums, behind a cabinet in the Supreme Court, by a descendent of James Madison, in a thrift store in Tennessee, and now by a family in Scotland who were having books appraised by a Scottish auction house, the number stands at 48. In various ways, I’ve had the honor to have been involved with 15—now 16—Stone Declaration sales. 

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. “In Congress, July 4, 1776. The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. … ENGRAVED by W.I. STONE, for the Dept. of State by order/of J.Q. ADAMS Sect. of State, July 4th 1823.” [Washington, D.C.] Copperplate engraving on vellum.

Inventory #26440       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Historical Background
In 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, wanting to preserve for posterity the image of the original engrossed Declaration, obtained Congressional approval to commission William J. Stone to engrave a plate to make exact copies of the Declaration. After nearly three years, Stone completed his work.

In 1824, Congress ordered 200 copies printed and for distribution, directing two copies each to the three surviving signers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Adams’ copies survive in the Massachusetts Historical Society, each with inscriptions that John Quincy Adams added on the reverse when he was organizing his father’s estate. Jefferson’s estate was largely disbursed, and there is no record of where his Stone copies went; they are not counted among the examples known to survive.

On July 4, 1826, when Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other, Charles Carroll became the last surviving signer of the Declaration, the one man with a living memory of the momentous decision. Four weeks later he inscribed and gave one of his copies to his grandson-in-law, John MacTavish. When the Maryland Historical Society was founded in 1844, MacTavish donated Carroll’s inscribed copy to them.

The inscriptions in the lower left corner of the example here tell the story of Carroll’s disposition of both of the copies he was given: “Presented to his friend John/Mac Tavish Esquire by/the only Surviving Signer/of this important State Paper,/exactly half a century/after having affixed his/name to the Original Document./(Signed) Ch. Carroll of Carrollton/ Doughoregan Manor/1826, August Second.” MacTavish copied Carroll’s inscription onto this document (so Carroll’s “signature” was penned by MacTavish), and then added: “The Original presented/to the Hist: Soc: of Md/November 30/[18]44./JMc T.”

All of the July 1776 broadsides and newspapers were created before what we now think of as the “original Declaration manuscript.” It wasn’t until July 19, 1776, that Congress ordered an official copy of the Declaration to be engrossed on vellum and signed by the members. Timothy Matlack, the clerk of Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson, was chosen to pen the text of the Declaration onto a large vellum sheet. The title of the Declaration was changed to “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America,” (as opposed to “A Declaration by the Representatives . . .”) after New York voted for independence on July 9.

On August 2, 1776, the Journal of Congress records that “the declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed” by the members of Congress then assembled. Their signatures are grouped by state, ordered geographically, with the delegates from New England signing first. Several delegates not present signed later. A couple of the signers had not been members of Congress on July 4; Thomas Lynch, Jr., for instance, replaced his father who had passed away in the meantime.

The names of the signers remained unknown until 1777. After the decisive battles of Trenton and Princeton, on January 18, 1777 Congress ordered authenticated copies of the Declaration for distribution to the states, complete with signer’s names. Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore printed these new broadsides, at least one of which was sent to every state. Only nine of the Goddard broadsides are known to exist, some signed by John Hancock and Charles Thomson.

The engrossed Declaration is presumed to have travelled with the Continental Congress as it met in various Eastern cities. If so, it would have gone from Philadelphia, to Baltimore, back to Philadelphia, then to Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania, and then back to Philadelphia for the remainder of the Revolution. The Continental Congress then met in Princeton, New Jersey (1783), Annapolis, Maryland (1783-1784), Trenton, New Jersey (1784), and New York City (1785-1790). It continued to be held by Congress until March 1790, when Thomas Jefferson assumed his position as the first Secretary of State and the department took charge of “the Acts, Records, and Seal of the United States.”

The precious document was frequently unrolled for display to visitors, and the signatures, especially, began to fade after nearly fifty years of handling. More damage followed, caused by the effects of aging and exposure to light and humidity as the Declaration hung unprotected on a wall in the Patent Office for thirty-five years. At the time of the Centennial, efforts at preservation and conservation belatedly began. By 1876, however, the manuscript was thus described in the Philadelphia Public Ledger: “The text is fully legible, but the major part of the signatures are so pale as to be only dimly discernible in the strongest light, a few remain wholly readable, and some are wholly invisible, the spaces which contained them presenting only a blank.”

Fortunately, in 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams grew concerned over the fragile condition of the Declaration. With the approval of Congress, Adams commissioned William J. Stone to engrave a facsimile—an exact copy—on a copper plate. Stone’s engraving is the best representation of the Declaration as the manuscript looked prior to its nearly complete deterioration.

First Edition of the Stone Facsimile in 1823
William J. Stone’s Declaration was engraved on copperplate and printed on vellum, a parchment sheet made from calfskin. The engraving is as close to an exact copy of the original manuscript as was humanly possible at that time, before the use of photographic imagery. Stone worked on the engraving for close to three years, keeping the original in his shop. Many still believe he used some sort of wet or chemical process to transfer the ink to create such a perfect reproduction, thus hastening the destruction of the original manuscript. In fact, he left minute clues to distinguish the original from the copies, also providing evidence of his painstaking engraving process. Stone’s engraving is the best representation of the Declaration manuscript as it looked at the time of signing. On April 11, 1823, Adams noted a visit from “Stone the Engraver, who has finished his fac-simile of the original Declaration of Independence.” By May 10, the original engrossed manuscript was back in Adams’s hands, being shown to visitors.

Daniel Brent of the Department of State wrote to Stone on May 28, 1823, requesting 200 copies of the facsimile “from the engraved plate…now, in your possession, and then to deliver the plate itself to this office to be afterwards occasionally used by you, when the Department may require further supplies of copies from it.” Stone proceeded to print 201 copies on vellum, one of which he kept for himself, as was customary though perhaps not authorized in this case. Four copies presently known on heavy wove paper are most likely proofs before printing on the much more expensive vellum.

On May 26, 1824, Congress provided orders to John Quincy Adams for distribution of the Stone facsimile for distribution. The surviving three signers of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, each received two copies. Two copies each were also sent to President James Monroe, Vice President Daniel D. Thompkins, former President James Madison, and the Marquis de Lafayette. The Senate and the House of Representatives split twenty copies. The various departments of government received twelve copies apiece. Two copies were sent to the President’s house and to the Supreme Court chamber. The remaining copies were sent to the governors and legislatures of the states and territories, and to various universities and colleges in the United States.

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.I. STONE, for the Dept. of State, by order,”and continued across the top right: “of J. Q. ADAMS, Sect. of State, July 4th, 1823.” Sometime after Stone completed his original printing, his imprint at top was removed, and replaced with a shorter imprint at bottom left, “W. J. STONE SC WASHn,” just below George Walton’s printed signature.

Presented to Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), 1824.
John MacTavish (1787-1852), husband of Carroll’s granddaughter, Emily Caton (1794/5-1867)
By descent in a Scottish family to present owner.