The Declaration of Independence
photo by: Michael Tropea
Stone Declaration of Independence Descended in Family of James Madison (1823)
In July of 1820, the master engraver William J. Stone was commissioned by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to execute 200 facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence. Adams had noticed the early deterioration of the engrossed parchment (i.e., handwritten on vellum) that Congress had signed in August of 1776. Stone labored for two years to create a copperplate that would yield the most exact replica of the signed Declaration.
The specific method that Stone used to produce the copperplate is the subject of debate, as is the degree to which the Stone engraving should be considered an exact facsimile of the engrossed Declaration. Some scholars believe that Stone employed a method of chemical transfer that ultimately damaged the document. However, by using close image analysis, Seth Kaller, an expert on historic documents, deduces that Stone traced and engraved the manuscript by hand, noting the use of ornamental calligraphy to place a diagonal line across the “T” in the first word.
University of Chicago professor Bill Brown emphasizes the cultural significance of the Declaration’s visual transformation, when early-nineteenth-century reproductions, like Stone’s, embellished the text after the War of 1812. “The William J. Stone engravings on parchment, and the subsequent engravings on paper,” Brown explains, “initiated the second life of the Declaration, which begins to thrive not just as a text but as a visual icon, recognizable at a glance––by now, hardly less recognizable than the American flag.”
Installed adjacent to Jasper Johns’s Flag (1960), another artistic appropriation of an American icon, the Stone copy at the David Rubenstein Forum prompts questions not only about the multiplicity of Declarations, but also about the meaning of the text’s hallowed words––“that all men are created equal … with certain unalienable Rights”––as they traverse historical contexts of racial injustice and social persecution. In the words of the African American poet Langston Hughes, “what happens to a dream deferred?” Indeed, from 1776 to the present, many readers, activists, and scholars have proposed manifold ways of understanding the significance of this founding document of the United States.
While it is difficult to ascertain the provenance of most of the surviving Stone Declarations. It is certain that former President James Madison owned the copy that is now on display at the David Rubenstein Forum. A series of Stone copies (of which this is one) was distributed in June of 1824 with an imprint that read: “Engraved by W.I. Stone, for the Dep. of State, by order of J. Q. Adams, Sec. of State, July 4th. 1823.” The series originally consisted of 200 copies, but only 48 are known to survive; the other 152 are assumed lost or destroyed. The 1823 Stone engraving is the most reproduced version of the Declaration.
This specific Stone copy, therefore, provides an opportunity to examine the rich material history of the Declaration of Independence as both a text and a visual icon. There is a long legacy of reading, interpretation, and conservation that has contributed various meanings to this founding document. While it is now common in American culture to attribute the highest symbolic status to the Declaration, over the past two decades, scholars have shown that it did not enjoy this esteem in the late eighteenth century nor the nineteenth century. Rather, before the Stone engraving was created, the engrossed (i.e., handwritten on vellum) Declaration was frequently rolled and unrolled, displayed in direct sunlight, and altogether treated without the meticulous care afforded it today. The engrossed parchment progressively decayed to its current state, which is almost entirely illegible.
We rely on the Stone engraving to reproduce the extraordinary words that compose the Declaration. Since 1922, the New York Times has used the Stone engraving to print the Declaration in its July 4th issue. How do we understand the Stone engraving as one of many representations of the engrossed parchment that served the constitutional function to sever bonds with Great Britain and forge a new nation?
In her paper “Punctuating Happiness,” Harvard University professor Danielle Allen questions the grammatical period that appears after “pursuit of happiness” in the Stone engraving. According to Allen, a comma or a semicolon with a long dash was the intended punctuation in the faded 1776 document. This typographical difference affects the way one reads the part that enumerates three “unalienable Rights” as the end of a sentence: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The period in the Stone engraving severs any connection between the articulation of individual rights and the role of government in securing them. As such, Allen argues that there is not just one text of the Declaration but rather a plethora of texts bearing witness to a “diverse textual tradition” of this founding document.
Scholars have researched the history of the Declaration to understand how the meaning of its words has transformed over time and circulated to other cultural contexts. In her book American Scripture, historian Pauline Maier illuminates how the Declaration “was remade into a sacred text, a statement of basic, enduring truths often described with words borrowed from the vocabulary of religion.” This sacralizing process took material form in 2001 when a team of conservationists developed a new encasement made of titanium and aluminum with a built-in humidity monitoring system to stop the deterioration of the engrossed Declaration at the National Archives. This process of preservation has also taken place in language: how people talk about the United States’ founding documents profoundly impacts their symbolic status. As Maier argues, “The act of reinterpreting the Declaration, moreover, did not stop…it goes on today, expanding the story’s cast from hundreds to millions.” Writing ten years later, historian David Armitage expands Maier’s inquiry by uncovering the global significance of the Declaration, demonstrating how its integral idea of enacting self-determination through political writing circulated abroad. Yet, this global circulation did not emphasize the famous second paragraph of “unalienable Rights” that people now take for granted as the Declaration’s most illustrious words.
Just as readers throughout history have supplied various interpretations of the Declaration, the founders of the United States had also debated and revised particular passages. Jefferson’s first draft included a long passage on slavery, but, as Maier indicates, the final document adopted by Second Continental Congress in 1776 was edited by committee members to excise the passage. In a 2011 Boston Globe article, University of Chicago professor Eric Slauter uses the large digital archive of 18th-century American newspapers in order to turn our attention to antislavery activists who interpreted the Declaration. To argue for the abolition of slavery, activists, particularly a mixed-race man Lemuel Haynes, appropriated the well-known second paragraph to shine a light on the hypocrisy of American chattel slavery. According to Slauter, “Invoking the language of the Declaration became a powerful part of abolitionist rhetoric.” In 1848, the women’s rights movement commenced in Seneca Falls, amending the self-evident truths to include “all men and women.” In 1852, the former enslaved man and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester entitled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” in which he exclaimed “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” To the enslaved person, as Douglass exhorted, the Fourth of July “reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Inquiring into the material history of the Stone engraving (and other versions of the Declaration) demands that readers scrutinize, to return to Danielle Allen’s phrase, the “diverse textual tradition” from which it emerges. In his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously construed the words of the Declaration and the Constitution as a “promissory note,” one that demands the restitution of racial justice to “make real the promises of democracy.” Indeed, the interpretative work of antislavery activists have been responsible for envisaging the Declaration in terms of what scholars now regard as, to use Slauter’s words, “a document of radical egalitarianism.” Moreover, as University of Chicago professor Steve Pincus points out, the question of limited government raised by the Declaration still preoccupies contemporary American politics. Understood as one of many representations of the Declaration, the Stone engraving reminds contemporary readers that they are also the makers of this founding document’s visual and textual meanings.
Written by Brandon Truett, PhD ‘20
Things, a special issue of Critical Inquiry (Fall 2001, book version 2004)