The Lost Declaration of Independence?

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence. It declared the 13 original colonies were no longer part of the British Empire. The original Declaration is probably the most important document in U.S. history. And amazingly enough, no one knows where it is.

The Declaration of Independence: The Official Story

On April 19, 1775, British troops stormed Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Colonial minutemen, warned by Paul Revere, Williams Dawes, and Samuel Prescott, lay in wait for them. The Battles of Lexington and Concord broke out and thus, the Revolutionary War began.

A little over a year later, in June 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. The document went through numerous changes. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from the British Empire. Two days later, the Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Today, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most famous documents in history. It resides at the National Archives. Its encased in titanium and aluminum and surrounded by inert argon gas.

Or is it?

The Declaration of Independence: The Real Story

The copy of the Declaration that sits at the National Archives is known as the Engrossed Copy. It’s basically a final version, crafted several weeks after the debate concluded. It was then postdated to July 4, 1776. Most scholars think it was penned by Timothy Matlack, who served as clerk to the Secretary of the Continental Congress.

But if that’s the case, then what did the Congress ratify on July 4? Well, in 1823, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to James Madison in which he described writing the original Declaration of Independence. He said that the Committee of Five “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress.”

So, it appears this “Fair Copy” was the version used by the Continental Congress. It was probably edited during the debate by Charles Thomson, who served as Secretary to the Congress. And it was most likely the document which was considered during the vote. In other words, the marked-up Fair Copy is, for all intents and purposes, the original Declaration of Independence.

Where’s the original Declaration of Independence?

The Fair Copy has been missing for over two hundred years. But what happened to it? Some researchers think it was accidentally destroyed by John Dunlap. Earlier in 1776, Dunlap had secured a printing contract with the Continental Congress. On the evening of July 4, John Hancock asked him to produce the first official “broadsides,” or printed copies, of the Declaration. These Dunlap broadsides were then distributed throughout the 13 colonies. So, it seems possible the Fair Copy was destroyed in the process.

Another theory is the Fair Copy was intentionally destroyed. Many delegates were in favor of keeping their deliberations a secret. This was a contentious issue at the time and was opposed by both Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Nevertheless, the Congress eventually decided to invoke a secrecy rule. So, perhaps the Fair Copy was destroyed so no one could see the changes made to it.

However, this is slightly problematic. Several draft versions of the Declaration exist, at least two of which were kept by Thomas Jefferson. Why would delegates keep those versions and yet order the destruction of the Fair Copy?

There is another possibility. Perhaps the Fair Copy survived July 4. Perhaps it’s still out there somewhere, waiting to be found. It could be lost in the National Archives. Or maybe it was kept by Thomas Jefferson or Charles Thomson. We should note that Jefferson’s “Rough Draft” wasn’t located until 1947.

One more thing. Remember those broadsides printed by John Dunlap? Well, one of them fetched $8.14 million at auction in 2000. If a printed copy of the Declaration generated that much money, just imagine what the Fair Copy would be worth. For all you fellow treasure hunters out there, happy hunting!

“The Declaration originated as a spoken thought, expressed on June 7, 1776, by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, who moved that ‘these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.’ A written version was produced on June 28, primarily the work of Thomas Jefferson, who left at least seven rough drafts, one found as recently as 1947. On July 2, Congress approved the first paragraph of the Declaration, officially separating from England.

Then, on July 4, the rest of the text was approved. Jefferson claimed that a ‘fair copy’ of the document was in the room that day, and John Hancock possibly signed something, making it legal. If this manuscript still exists, it is the holy grail of American freedom.” ~ Ted Widmer, Looking for Liberty, New York Times, July 4, 2008

Recent Comments

  • William Sitler
    March 4, 2013 - 11:48 am · Reply

    The “lost original” is at theThomasGilcrease Museum of American History and Art! Tulsa OK. Mr. Gilcrease purchased if from an “old document dealer for $58,000 in 1949, for $58,000.

    • David Meyer
      March 18, 2013 - 2:04 pm · Reply

      Thanks William. I’ve read about the Gilcrease text. However, it’s my understanding this is a certified copy of the original. As far as I’m aware, the original Declaration is still MIA.

  • William Sitler
    March 21, 2013 - 5:12 pm · Reply

    “Declaration of Independence Tulsa” should get you there!
    if not try “A page out of history: Declaration of Independence Tulsa”

    David, the serious thing about the Museum and Tulsa University denying my research is:
    1. It turns pepole “off” from their own research! I could give you a list of (perhaps) 150-200 researchers with whom I’ve had e-mail contact! They call the Museum and get deliberately miss directed (to be kind)by Randy) and they stop looking! Start With Carrie Dieterhorn of the National Parks (Philadephia) and then go to The Philadelphia Historic Society and talk Tammy Miller. (she may be back to her maiden name now!)
    2. The story is just too big for them! Recgonizing the FACTS of the “lost original” bering alive and well in Tulsa, and lieing about me and my research which, knocks down the further study of the times of 1776, when you open that page only then can you understand the tru facts of what really happenedin Philadelphia, 1776! I’ve barely cracked the door open! The “lost originalO is justthe start of an adevnture, not the finish!

  • Joe McNeal
    April 1, 2013 - 2:01 pm · Reply

    While buying southern art in North Carolina I purchased a portriat of Robert E Lee and behind it I discovered a badly faded and old copy in which had been folded and now is flat hidden behind the matting. Do you know anyone trustworthy to date this piece.

  • William Sitler
    April 2, 2013 - 12:16 pm · Reply

    This AM, I learned theTulsa World has chosen to remove the story from their web page!
    Funny, they waited until I complained about a Mayorial candidate using my page, the pages of Gilcrease Museum, and the pages of the University of Tulsa!

    And, here I sit trying to build a www site to blow the minds of Historians! A good friend (with a Doctorate in History and Chair of a history department) once told me, in his wonderful Scotish accent: “Bill, you have to remember: History, is HIS STORY.


  • William Sitler
    April 12, 2013 - 5:26 pm · Reply

    David, The World put it back! Thank you Tulsa World!
    One part of this mystery is caused by the term “fair copy”!
    On the Gilcrease Manuscript there is written:
    “Fair copy of the Original Declaration!”
    This WEB quotes the Webster Dictionary:
    “a neat and exact copy especially of a corrected draft”!
    It’s too bad past Gilcrease employees and some critics in Academia didn’t check the dictionary before they started critizing my research! After I found the Dictionary defination, it was a down hill ride all the way!

  • Glenn McCurdy
    August 6, 2013 - 7:30 pm · Reply

    On July 4th at the visitor’s center at Valley Forge I was one of hundreds who had the pleasure of seeing and reading one of two “anastatic” copies of the original Declaration. This process, used in the 1840s in an attempt to copy the original, effectively destroyed it instead. Today two of these copies, restored by the Conservancy in Philadelphia, exist as the only actually readable version of the destroyed original on display at the National Archives. Only Hancock’s signature is readable. The second copy was discovered in the archives of Independence Hall when the first restored copy was brought there to be carefully measured and compared line by line to a digital version of what remains of the original. See for all the details of this recent research.

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