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The Declaration of Independence:
Very Rare New York July 11, 1776 Printing by John Holt (SOLD)
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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”

One of six known copies—and the only one in private hands—of the most attractive newspaper printing of the Declaration, with the complete text printed on its own page, double-column, with the simple legend at bottom, “New-York: Printed by John Holt, in Water-Street.”

[DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE]. Newspaper. The New-York Journal; Or, The General Advertiser. New York: Printed by John Holt in Water Street, Wednesday, July 11, 1776. Masthead features pro-independence snake motif. 12 x 18½ in. 4 pp.

Inventory #24823       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Own a Piece of History. To see our current inventory of copies of the Declaration of Independence and Declaration signers related material click here.

The Declaration is printed on its own page (3), in a larger font with a decorative border, because Holt intended it to be treated as a broadside. His note on the second page explains that “The Declaration of the United States of America, is inserted in this paper, in the present form, to oblige a number of our Customers, who intend to separate it from the rest of the paper, and fix it up, in open view, in their Houses, as a mark of their approbation of the INDEPENDENT SPIRIT of their Representatives.” Patriotic customers were probably inclined to hide these within weeks, when New York was occupied by British forces—a major factor to their scant survival rate.

The Journal hails the Declaration as “the most important event that ever happened in the American Colonies.” War news includes a British officer’s account of the capture of transports George and Annabella by Boston patriots, “Americus” to the “People of England,” and reports on the reception of the Declaration, including New Yorkers pulling down the statue of King George III at Bowling Green, about a half-mile from Holt’s office. Advertisements include notices for runaway slaves, a reward offered for a wanted Tory, an oration on Joseph Warren, and a new play, The Fall of British Tyranny or American Liberty Triumphant.

Excerpts:

…the most important event that ever happened to the American Colonies, an event which will doubtless be celebrated through a long succession of future ages, by anniversary commemorations, and be considered as a grand Æra in the history of the American States. --- On this auspicious day, the Representatives of the Thirteen United Colonies, by the providence of God, unanimously agreed to, and voted a Proclamation, declaring the said Colonies Free And Independent States, which was proclaimed at the state house on Philadelphia, on Monday last, and received with joyful acclamations. Copies were also distributed to All the United Colonies --- On Wednesday last it was read at the head of each Brigade of the Continental Army posted at and near New York and everywhere received with loud huzzas, and the utmost demonstration of joy. The same evening the equestrian statue of George III, which Tory pride and folly raised in the year 1770, was, by the Sons of Freedom, laid prostrate in the dirt, the just desert of an ungrateful Tyrant! The lead wherewith this monument was made, is to be run into bullets, to assimilate with the brain of our infatuated adversaries, who, to gain a peppercorn, have lost an Empire.* --- ‘Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.’ [‘Those whom God wills to destroy he first deprives of their senses.’] A Gentleman who was present at this ominous fall of leaden Majesty, looking back at the Original’s hopeful beginning, pertinently exclaimed, in the language of the Angel to Lucifer, ‘If thou be’st he; but ah-!- how fallen ! how chang’d !’

*  Lord Clare, in the House of Commons, had declared that a pepper-corn, in acknowledgment of Britain’s right to tax America, was “of more importance than millions without it.”

Historical Background

On July 4, 1776, General George Washington wrote from New York to inform John Hancock, the president of Continental Congress, that “it now seems beyond Question … that the Enemy mean to direct their Operations and bend their most vigorous Efforts against this Colony …” The British fleet under Admiral Richard Howe had reached the coast just days earlier; already, thousands of enemy troops were pouring into Staten Island. The undeniable fact that New York teemed with Loyalist activity compounded Washington’s concerns about the impending siege. The General had already narrowly escaped a Tory plot to kidnap him and murder his top officers, and rumor had it that a plate of peas prepared for him at Fraunces Tavern had been poisoned. The commander-in-chief had ample reason to warn Congress that they were being threatened by “Internal, as well as external Enemies.”

It took five days for Washington to learn that the Continental Congress formally declared America’s independence from Great Britain. On July 9, 1776, he received a letter from Hancock, along with a copy of the newly approved Declaration. The commander-in-chief had additional copies made and distributed to his brigadier generals and colonels, to be read to the assembled troops at 6:00 that evening, at City Hall Park, less than a mile from Holt’s press.

The Hon. The Continental Congress…having been pleased to dissolve the Connection which subsisted between this Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of North America, free and independent States: The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at Six OClock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice. The General hopes this important Event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms: And that he is now in the service of a State, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest Honors of a free Country. (George Washington, July 9, 1776, General Orders)

An orderly book from a company of Connecticut soldiers who had recently arrived to aid in the defense of New York describes the situation:

 “the Honble Continental Congress … haveing been plead to Desolve Connection Between this country & great Britain & to declare the united Colonys of North America free & Independent States the Several Brigades are to be Drawn us [up] this Evening on their Respective Parades at 6 oclock when the Deleration of Congress Shewing the grounds & Reasons of the Measures to be Read with Laudable [audible] Voice the genl [George Washington] Hopes that this important Point will serve as a fresh incentive to Every officer and soldier to act with fidelity & courage as knowing that now the Peace and Safety of this country Depends under god solely on the success of our arms....” (July 9, 1776)

—From a Manuscript Orderly Book

An eyewitness recalled the scene:

The brigades were formed in [a] hollow square … One of these brigades was encamped on the ‘Commons,’ where the New York City Hall now stands. The hollow square was formed about the spot where the Park Fountain stands. Washington was within the square, on horseback, and the Declaration was read in a clear voice by one of his aides. When it was concluded, three hearty cheers were given. (Lossing’s Fieldbook of the Revolution, II: 595).

The celebration was not, however, limited to a few “huzzas.” Later that night, a boisterous crowd of soldiers, sailors and local citizens headed to Bowling Green, toppled the huge, gilt lead equestrian statue of George III, and dragged it down Broadway. It was then taken away, and most of the statue was melted down. Ebenezer Hazard brilliantly remarked that the British “troops will probably have melted majesty fired at them,” and indeed the King was eventually transformed into 42,088 bullets. (Lossing: 595; The New York Historical Society has the largest surviving fragments).

In any case, the next day General Washington voiced disapproval, noting that though the destruction was “actuated by Zeal in the public cause … it has … the appearance of riot, and want of order … in future these things shall be avoided by the Soldiery, and left to be executed by proper authority” (George Washington, July 10, 1776, General Orders).

Celebrations of the Declaration continued for several days in the New York area. The inmates of New York City’s debtor’s prison (then housed in the City Hall, on the corner of Wall and Nassau streets) were released in a general amnesty on July 11th (Lossing, quoting a report by Holt: 595). Ten days later, pursuant to a resolve of New York’s provincial congress, the Declaration was read and published at City Hall. The people assembled “then took the British arms from over the seat of justice in the court-room, also the arms wrought in stone in front of the building, and the picture of the king in the council chamber, and destroyed them, by fire, in the street. They also ordered the British arms in all the churches in the city to be destroyed” (Lossing: 595).

“This declaration has had a glorious effect,” observed Whipple. It “has made these colonies all alive…” (Whipple to Langdon, July 16, 1776). Though the Declaration of Independence boosted the spirits of the troops and patriotic New Yorkers, it did not delay the inevitable loss of the city. After meeting with Howe’s representatives at the end of the month, and refusing their offer of clemency, Washington was badly defeated in the Battle of Long Island. By mid-September, the British had occupied New York City.

One of the “glorious effects” of the Declaration was to force New York to commit to independence. Holt wasn’t correct when he wrote that “the Representatives of the Thirteen United Colonies, by the providence of God, unanimously agreed to, and voted a Proclamation, declaring the said Colonies Free And Independent States.” New York, in fact, was the only hold-out, though once the Declaration reached New York’s legislature, their assent was added.

John Holt, the publisher of this newspaper, was a steadfast patriot. In June 1774, Holt had removed the King’s arms from his paper’s heading and substituted the image of a snake, cut into pieces, accompanied by the motto “Unite or die.”

Beginning in December 1774, Holt changed the snake to the form it remained in for this July 11, 1776 issue. Dr. Robin Shields of the Library of Congress, describes it: “The double coiled snake with its tail in its mouth proclaims in the body, ‘United Now Alive and Free, And Thus Supported, Ever Bless our Land, Firm on this Basis Liberty Shall Stand, Till Time Becomes Eternity.’ Within the coils is a pillar standing on the Magna Carta surmounted by the cap of liberty. The pillar on each side is supported by six arms and hands, representing the colonies.”

Two days earlier, in White Plains on July 9th, the New York Convention ordered 500 copies of a “handbill” (broadside) of the Declaration printed and distributed “to all the county committees of the State with orders to publish it in the districts.” It was headed by their resolve, including orders for public proclamation “on Thursday next.” (On July 10, what had been known as “the Provincial Congress of the Colony of New York” officially changed its name to the “Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York.”) That Thursday, July 11, the Declaration was read from the steps of the state capitol in White Plains.

Holt printed the broadside immediately after his July 11 paper came off the press. He used the same typeset of the body of the text as he had for the newspaper printing, simply adding the convention’s resolution, adding the outer decorative border, and correcting a centering mistake in the Declarations first line “In Congress, July 4, 1776.”

(As noted above, the public reading in New York City followed a full ten days later).

John Holt (1721-1784) was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he received his formal schooling as a merchant, while his brother-in-law was the public printer. Holt served as mayor of Williamsburg from 1752 to 1753, and then as a deputy postmaster. He helped James Parker publish the Connecticut Gazette in New Haven from 1755 to 1760, when he moved to New York City to manage the New-York Gazette and Weekly Post-Boy. He and Parker ended their partnership in 1762, and in 1766 Holt changed the paper’s name to New-York Journal or General Advertiser. Holt also published books and pamphlets. He was forced to halt publication on August 29, 1776, when the British were about to occupy the city. As the British arrived, Holt fled the city to settle in Kingston, New York, where he resumed his newspaper briefly from July to October 1777. He published it intermittently as the Independent New-York Gazette in Poughkeepsie, New York, from 1778 to his death.

Water Street, originally one block long, was first extended by landfill in 1692 to hold the waters of the East River. Holt’s business was located “near the Coffee-House,” a three-story brick inn and meeting place on the northern corner of Broad and Water Streets. Holt’s business was on the same block of Broad Street as the famed Fraunces Tavern (c. 1720), at the intersection of Pearl Street, less than a mile from the present-day New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall.

Provenance

Formerly owned by a mid-western private collector.

Only 5 other copies of Holt’s July 11 paper are presently known, all in institutions:

Historical Society of Pennsylvania;

Library Company of Philadelphia;

Library of Congress;

University of Michigan - Clements Library;

Yale University.

Further, though the New York assembly ordered 500 copies, only five copies of Holt’s ca. July 9 broadside are known to survive:

Cincinnati Museum Center;

Huntington Library;

New York Public Library;

[New York State Library?: in 1906, Hazleton noted that the state had a Holt broadside; we will try to confirm]

Westchester County Archives,

and one in private hands. 

References

American Memory. Library of Congress. memory.loc.gov

Brigham, Clarence S. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (Worcester, Mass: American Antiquarian Society, 1947).

Deshler, Charles D. “How the Declaration Was Received in the Old Thirteen,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 85, Issue 506, July 1892, 165-187.

Seth Kaller, Inc records & research

Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/declaration.html

Lossing, Benson J.  Fieldbook of the Revolution, 1859.

Sotheby’s. “The First Printing of the Declaration of Independence,” May 21, 1993.

Sullivan, Dr. James, ed. The History of New York State (Lewis Historical Publishing, 1927).

Walsh, Michael J. “Contemporary Broadside Editions of the Declaration of Independence.” Harvard Library Bulletin 3, 1949

Only eight other newspapers were printed before July 11, two printed the Declaration on the same day, and 19 newspaper printings followed in July – but Holt’s is without question the most attractive of all the newspaper printings. Only two other known papers produced a special full page for the Declaration: the July 16 New Hampshire Gazette, Extraordinary, of Exeter, New Hampshire, and the July 20 Freeman’s Journal of Portsmouth, both less decorative than Holt. [Four newspapers are not located, and therefore could not be checked.] 

Regarding typesetting and visual power, Holt’s paper is more displayable than many of the broadside printings. It is a very rare New York issue of the Declaration, from July of 1776, printed blocks away from George Washington’s army as New York was just about to become the center of the conflict.