Independence Day: Founding documents remind of words of freedom amid slavery
By David Pendered
As premises of equality embedded in the nation’s founding documents arise anew in discussion, a rare copy of the Declaration that has a connection to Georgia has sold for a record price. And a related document is coming back on the market.
Meanwhile, the National Archives is bracing for debate over the “reimagining” of the repository for founding documents, the Rotunda. The national archivist has accepted all recommendations in a task force report that calls for adding representations of the roles of women, Indigenous Americans and enslaved people. Released June 17, the report observes: “Reimagining the Rotunda will stir controversy.”
On July 1, Freeman’s auction in Philadelphia sold a rare printing of the Declaration of Independence for a record $4.42 million. This printing wasn’t from 1776, but it did have provenance tying it directly to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the namesake of Georgia’s Carroll County.
The copy sold July 1 was engraved in 1823 and delivered to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of four Maryland representatives to sign the Declaration. Carroll was the only Roman Catholic to sign and is known for laboring for religious toleration, at least for all Christians. As the scion of a wealthy planter family, Carroll was likely the largest American slaveholder at the time. Different reports range from 400 to 500, or even 1,000 slaves. He later considered resettling them in Africa, according to a report on the museum website of the family’s house and gardens, in Annapolis. Md.
Seth Kaller, who specializes in what he calls “Documents of Freedom,” was involved in the document’s authentication and sale. Kaller offered two thoughts related to the document that sold July 1:
- This copy of the Declaration is the best representation of the original that was signed in 1776, but that isn’t what anyone saw at the time;
- The “National Treasure” document wasn’t actually signed until Aug. 2, 1776 and even the signers’ names weren’t made public until later.
A patriotic rebirth emerged after the War of 1812, and Americans became curious about the founding documents. By 1820, several copperplate prints had been made with facsimiles of the signatures, but none reproduced the original look of the whole document, according to Kaller. John Quincy Adams, at the time serving as secretary of state, realized the original was already damaged and received Congressional approval to have “exact copies” made to preserve the image of independence for future generations.
Adams hired William J. Stone to engrave it, a process that took about three years. When the copper plate was complete, Congress ordered 200 copies and instructed that the surviving signers of the Declaration would get two each. By then, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Carroll were the only three surviving signers.
Judging by the price paid, the market for such documents is heated. The auction price of $4.42 million is five times more than the pre-sale high estimate of $800,000.
After the sale, Freeman’s, the nation’s oldest auction house, based in Philadelphia, pointed out that this “more than quadrupled the world auction record for a Stone printing of the Declaration of Independence set in New York City in 2019.”
In addition, this was the second-highest price ever paid at auction for any copy of the Declaration of Independence (following only the July 4, 1776 broadside), and it is the highest price ever paid auction for any American document printed in the 19th century, Kaller observed.
The Declaration was originally publicized with broadside (single pages printed on only on one side) and newspapers. Even the famous “John Hancock,” said to have been penned so large that King George could read it without his spectacles, wasn’t there yet. John Dunlap’s broadside, set in type and printed through the night of July 4 and into July 5, was the first. Approximately 200 “Dunlap broadsides” were printed. Of these, 28 complete or partial copies are known to survive.
The last one to change hands sold at auction in 1991 for $8.54 million, but subsequently was sold privately for more than $20 million, according to Kaller.
Last year, Kaller purchased John Hancock’s July 8, 1776 letter forwarding to Georgia the Declaration, which Hancock considered “as the Ground and Foundation of a future Government….” Kaller now plans to bring that back to the market in the post-Covid environment.
Regarding the Hancock letter, Hancock signed one for each of the 13 states. Today, official documents would go into state libraries, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and other public institutions, but none of those existed in 1776. According to Kaller, “We don’t know if the letter to Georgia sold before its first auction record in 1899. Only five of the 13 are known to survive, and each of them first sold long ago.”
Only one of those still has the Dunlap broadside originally sent with it. Rhode Island’s letter, and the Declaration, is now owned by the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. Noting that Carroll’s Stone engraving was found in an attic in Scotland, Kaller said he hopes someone in Georgia will eventually find an original 1776 printing to reunite with the letter.
It took a month for this Hancock letter and the Declaration to get to Savannah, where many residents warmly accepted the news and conducted a mock funeral for King George the Third, according to a video on the website of Kaller’s company, Seth Kaller, Inc. Historic Documents and Legacy Collections.
Kaller bought the Hancock letter in partnership with a client, at a Sotheby’s auction on Jan. 27, 2020, just before the outset of the pandemic, for $1.04 million. Last week, it was on his website priced at $1.8 million. Right before the auction, he removed the price.
“Recent prices for Declarations and other important Americana certainly reflect and affect the market,” Kaller said.
Kaller said he hasn’t set the new price, but said he’s willing to sell at a discount to a buyer who would return the document to Georgia.
The complete text of Hancock’s letter, along with an interesting history, is published on a Kaller’s website. In part:
- “Impressed with this Sentiment, and at the same Time fully convinced, that our Affairs may take a more favourable Turn, the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve all Connection between Great Britain, and the American Colonies; and to declare them free and independent States, as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, <2> which I am directed by Congress to transmit to you, and to request, you will have it proclaimed in your Colony in the Way you shall think most proper.
- “The important Consequences to the American States from this Declaration of Independence, considered as the Ground and Foundation of a future Government, will naturally suggest the Propriety of proclaiming it in such a Manner, that the People may be universally informed of it.
- “I have the Honor to be/ Gentlemen/ Your most obedt /& Very hble Servt
- “John Hancock Presidt”
Last year, Kaller was unable to exhibit the letter anywhere. On July 4th, he intends to exhibit it at the first time, along with the Stone Declaration that just sold (courtesy of the buyer, who is anonymous even to Kaller) at the Second Bank of the United States, which is part of Independence Hall National Historic Park.
Regarding the Rotunda, the planned physical changes are part of a broader effort aimed at moving the National Archives “forward on a path toward diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.” David Ferriero, achivist of the United States, said in a statement released June 14 that he has accepted each recommendation of the Task Force on Racism he convened following the murder of George Floyd, in Minneapolis. The full comment observes:
- “’It is obvious to me from my reading of the report that we share a common desire to make NARA a better and more equitable workplace. It also points out our responsibilities to the greater archival community, acknowledging harmful past practices of our own, and building on the work of other archival and cultural heritage institutions which have led the way on efforts towards change,’ Ferriero told employees at a May 11, 2021, town hall meeting to discuss the report. ‘This is a remarkable milestone, but as I’ve shared with the task force members, this is just the beginning.’”