John Dunlap, New World Celt

In Strabane, Northern Ireland, around 1746, a young lad of ten years prepared to leave on a transatlantic journey. He had learned some of the printing business at Gary’s Printery on the Earl of Abercorn’s estate, a well-established publishing and printing center in the 18th century. Now he was to join his Uncle William, a printer and publisher in Philadelphia as an apprentice. His grandparents had come from Scotland nearly fifty years ago for a life in another country, and now he was to leave theirs and go to a New World.

When John Dunlap became eighteen, he took over the business from his uncle, who had become a Minister. He began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packetor the General Advertiser. This weekly soon became known as a reliable source for news concerning the Continental Congress. John married into a Patriot family, with his new great uncle being Benjamin Franklin himself!

On a hot July day in Philadelphia, 225 years ago, John began the most important “rush job” in all history at his shop at 48 High Street. He was to print a “broadside”. Broadsides- single sheets printed on one side- served as public announcements or advertisements from the beginnings of printing in America through the early 20thcentury. Generally posted or read aloud, broadsides provided news of battles, deaths, executions, and other current events. They were popular “broadcasts” of their day, bringing news of current events to the public quickly…. and often disappearing just as quickly.

Fighting between the American colonists and the British forces had been going on for nearly a year. The Continental Congress had been meeting since June, wrestling with the question of independence. Finally, late in the afternoon on July 4th, 1776, twelve of the thirteen colonies reached agreement to declare the new states as a free and independent nation. New York was the lone holdout. John Hancock ordered Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to print broadside copies of that declaration that was signed by him as President and Charles Thompson as Secretary.

“Benjamin Franklin himself approved the layout set up by Dunlap. The Caslon type was elegant, the headlines bold and arresting. The Colonies’ point-by-point list of outrages committed by King George III and his mercenary army spread across the page in a single column with almost biblical thunder. With only the rough draft written by Jefferson and approved by the Congress as a source, Dunlap configured the broadside to assure the greatest impact, and then added his own name to the bottom: “Philadelphia- Printed by John Dunlap”. If the Revolution failed, he would hang with Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hancock and the rest!”

Two to five hundred copies were printed that July evening. The next morning the first copies were distributed to members of the Congress and riders were sent throughout the colonies with John’s documents in hand. On July 8th independence was publicly proclaimed in Philadelphia. On the ninth, General George Washington read the Dunlap Broadside aloud to his troops to raucous cheers. Printers throughout the colonies copied the document and word spread very quickly that America was free!

The Dunlap Broadside was, in fact, the first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence. The more familiar hand–engrossed Declaration was not completed until August 2nd, 1776, when the delegates assembled to affix their signatures. By then Dunlap Broadsides had reached public assemblies in all thirteen colonies, and many British military headquarters.

John went on to become the official printer for the Congress, and the Packet became the first daily newspaper in the United States. He died a hero and a veteran, having founded and captained the 1rst Troop of Philadelphia City Calvary, used as bodyguard for General Washington at Trenton and Princeton.

There are only twenty-five copies remaining of the original broadside and museums or libraries own twenty-one of them. The last to be found was in 1989 by a man browsing in a flea market who bought a painting for $4 because he wanted the frame. Concealed behind the painting was an original Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence. Sotheby’s auctioned this copy for $8.4 million in the spring of 2000. Its message was worth much more to the people of 1776 and immeasurably more today, in 2003.  An amazing contribution by a child of Ireland: John Dunlap, New World Celt.


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John Dunlap