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The Declaration of Independence First Facsimile,
Printed by William J. Stone
Click to enlarge:

“In Congress, July 4, 1776.  The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America…”

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. Copperplate engraving printed on heavy wove paper. First edition imprint at top, “ENGRAVED by W.J. STONE for the Dept. of State by order of J. Q. Adams, Sec of State July 4, 1823.” 25⅞ x 29⅞ in. overall.

Inventory #20716       PRICE ON REQUEST

This is one of six known copies[1] of the Declaration on heavy wove paper with the first edition imprint at top, “ENGRAVED by W.J. STONE for the Dept. of State by order of J. Q. Adams, Sec of State July 4, 1823.” That imprint was removed from the plate at some point after the official copies had been printed on vellum in late 1823, and before the second edition was produced for Peter Force’s American Archives series, prior to July of 1833. (The second edition is imprinted at bottom left, “WJ Stone SC Washn”.) This copy may well be a first-edition proof, produced before printing on the more expensive vellum.

Historical Background

By 1820 the original Declaration of Independence, now housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., showed signs of age and wear from handling. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, with the approval of Congress, commissioned William J. Stone to engrave a facsimile on a copper plate. The engraving is as close to an exact copy of the original as was possible at the time. Stone worked on it for nearly three years, keeping the original in his shop.

Many still believe Stone 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. However,  having closely compared several Stone imprints to a very high resolution image of the original manuscript and a high resolution image of the original Stone plate, we find minute clues that Stone left to distinguish the original from the copies, providing evidence of his painstaking engraving process. Other documentary evidence shows that the original was already deteriorating by the time Stone was given this assignment. 

When Stone had completed the engraving, Congress ordered 200 official copies printed on vellum, to be distributed to notables such as President Monroe, the three surviving Signers (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Charles Carroll), and Lafayette, as well as to various federal officials, governors, and educational institutions. (I have had the privilege of handling 8 of the approximately 50 known copies of Stone’s first edition printings on vellum.)

Dating the First Edition Stone Facsimiles on Paper

Given the fact that only six examples (see Census below) are known, it’s possible that some or all of these first edition Stone facsimiles on paper constitute printer’s proofs that preceded the original vellum printing. However, we cannot yet rule out the possibility that these examples were printed at the time the vellum copies were made, in late 1823, or right before the original legend on the copperplate was effaced, some time prior to July of 1833. (The possibility that a second plate was created at that time has been all but eliminated.) This kind of heavy wove paper was used between approximately 1820 and 1870; we have yet to find a test that will narrow it further.

Four of the paper examples can be traced back to, or are associated with, American politicians or diplomats who were active in the 1820s to 1850s. We’ve also discovered documentation that Secretary of State Edward Livingston sent a Declaration facsimile to the new chargé d’affaires to Belgium in 1832, as “a suitable ornament for the office of the Legation.” We speculate that it may have been one of the first edition Stone facsimiles on paper, in which case the Forbes and Nelson examples, cited below, may have traveled a similar route – both men took on new diplomatic posts during Livingston’s tenure as Secretary of State.

CENSUS OF FIRST EDITION STONE FACSIMILES ON PAPER

in order of their discovery

Brigham Young example, Christie's LA 01/31/2002, lot 2

Provenance: Brigham Young - Eliza Burgess Young - Alfales Young - Mel Crader - William Crader - Christie's Los Angeles 01/31/2002, lot 2, to Seth Kaller, Inc. for private collector.

Descended in the family of Brigham Young, to whom (per family tradition) it was first presented. Secretary of State Daniel Webster sent a Declaration facsimile to Young, who had just been made governor of the new territory, on March 25, 1851, as part of a shipment of books and documents “to which, under various acts of Congress the Territory of Utah is entitled.” (Domestic Letters of the Dept. of State, Vol. 38, p. 540) It’s likely that this example is the facsimile sent by Webster.

Christie's, 02/12/2009, lot 9  

Provenance: unknown.

KS 20716 (this example), Thomaston Place Auctions, 3/15/2007, lot 75 to Seth Kaller, Inc.

Provenance: unknown  

John Murray Forbes example, Swann 6/5/2008 lot 141                   

Provenance: John Murray Forbes - Juan Manuel de Rosas - Juan Manuel Terrero - Terrero heirs - Swann, 06/05/2008, lot 141 to private collector (?).

John Murray Forbes was America’s first chargé d’affaires to Argentina (following the death of Caesar Rodney, who held the office as U.S. Minister to the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata), serving from 1825 until his death in Buenos Aires in 1831. Terrero family tradition held that Forbes had given the facsimile to Juan Manuel de Rosas, governor of Buenos Aires and de facto ruler of Argentina, and that de Rosas gave it to a member of the Terrero family.

Jo[h]n Nelson example, Christie's 6/14/2006, lot 443

Provenance: Jo[h]n Nelson - private owner. Written on label on verso: “Presented by Hon Jon Nelson Atty Genl”. This almost certainly is John Nelson (1791-1860), Congressman from Maryland (1821-1823), first U.S. chargé d’affaires to the Two Sicilies (1831-1832?), Attorney General of the U.S. (1843-1845), and Secretary of State ad interim (1844).                    

Noyes Barber example                                             

Provenance: Noyes Barber - private owner (since late 1980s, Groton, Ct.). Written on verso: “Noyes Barber[’]s / Hung in his library.” Barber was a Congressman from Groton, Connecticut and a supporter of John Quincy Adams.

We are continuing to research the history of the Stone printings of the Declaration, and will publish additional information later in 2013.


[1] Excluding later reprints.


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