(Photo credit: Display case, West Wing, Independence Hall, courtesy Jeremy Thompson, Flickr Creative Commons)
I used to be a big fan of “The West Wing” on TV, and the term—used to describe an extension to the White House that includes the Oval Office and other offices of the president—has become synonymous with the presidency. But there are West Wings and West Wings. The one that is attached to Independence Hall in Philadelphia isn’t as famous or as deserving of fame as the one stuck to the Executive Mansion. But it is a bit of a hidden gem in terms of what it contains inside.
When the Pennsylvania State House was being built between 1732 and 1753, two wings were added to the east and the west. They were connected to the main building by covered arcades and staircases. While the main building was used for the functions of colonial Pennsylvania’s three branches of government—the Assembly, the Governor’s Council and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court—the wings provided, among other things, offices and quarters for the Assembly doorkeepers as well as storage space for books and public documents. They weren’t very big, but they were appropriate for the much smaller size of government needed at the time.
The wings survived the Revolutionary War, when they were used as armories, and into the early Republic period. After 1800, the Pennsylvania capital moved to Harrisburg but the buildings surrounding the State House—what would later become known as Independence Hall—were still in use by the City of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, in 1812 City authorities decided to tear down the wing buildings and replace them with two large “modern” office wings, connected directly to the State House. That was pretty bad, but at least the City made a conscious effort to preserve the main building—Independence Hall itself.
Fast forward to the 1890s, by which time the City had moved its last offices out of Independence Square. At this point there was a growing push to restore the whole building—including the wings—to the way it looked during the Revolution. As a result of this effort the 1812 office wings were demolished and new wings and arcades were built to resemble the 18th century originals, though for some reason the external staircases were not recreated.
So the wings and arcades at Independence Hall are not original. They only go back to around 1900. If you walk inside these structures knowing that, you’re not going to get that special buzz you only feel when you’re in a space whose walls once echoed with the voices of great men from long ago. That’s annoying. Still, the presence of these reconstructed wings—along with the original City Hall and Congress Hall buildings—do allow visitors to view the square and see it more or less the way it looked in the late 18th century. And just to be clear: Independence Hall itself is the original building; it never got torn down. So you can happily indulge in the whole buzzy great men’s voices’ echo thing in there if you feel so moved.
Even if they’re not original the wings are still put to good use today. Most tours of Independence Hall begin in the East Wing. The West Wing, meanwhile, is a separate attraction that now houses a handful of pretty amazing artifacts that go back to the birth of the country. And that is really the reason to stop by this wing and check out what’s inside.
The cool factor might not be immediately clear when you go into the West Wing. You enter a hallway before turning immediately to your left, through an interior door that is often closed, to go into a dimly lit room that takes up the entire first floor of the West Wing. (The second floor is off limits; it’s reserved for VIPs and special visitors to the park.) This room appears completely empty, except for a large central display case. Especially when things are quiet, visitors tend to peer round the door into the room and have this look on their faces suggesting they’re not quite sure they should be there. (Don’t worry: It’s OK to go in.) On one side of the room’s display case three documents are laid out for viewing behind protective glass; on the other side an inkstand is on display.
It doesn’t seem like much, but the four artifacts in this room are pretty special. The silver inkstand, placed behind a large glass case, is the very one once used by the founders to sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—both events that happened next door, in Independence Hall. This is the Philip Syng inkstand and it’s quite pretty and elegant in a Rococo kind of way, with its ornate base tray, sander, quill holder and inkpot. On the other side of the display case are original copies of three documents that changed America’s history. On the left is a copy from the first ever printing of the Declaration of Independence. The middle case contains an early draft of the Articles of Confederation, including extensive handwritten edits by its original owner, Elbridge Gerry. The rightmost case contains a near-final draft of the Constitution—one that was owned by George Washington.
The park service calls this collection their “Great Essentials” exhibit. The name comes from a phrase used by John Adams in a letter to Abigail Adams, where John asserts that, while the states differ from each other in all sorts of ways, “in the great essentials of society and government they are all alike.” In that spirit, the West Wing’s artifacts are supposed to display what it is the states have in common.
All three documents are special and worth seeing, but I particularly like Declaration and that’s what I want to focus on here. It’s called a Dunlap Broadside, named after Ulster-born Philadelphia printer John Dunlap. This broadside—essentially a typeset poster announcing an important proclamation—is especially significant in American history. The Dunlap Broadsides were the first ever print versions of the Declaration of Independence. About 200 of them were printed and only 26 of these are known to still be in existence. All these Dunlap Broadsides are older than the engrossed or handwritten version of the Declaration of Independence.
Yes, you heard that right. The engrossment of the Declaration of Independence, the big fancy one that’s on display in the huge Charters of Freedom exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, DC, is not as old as the Dunlap Broadside in the West Wing. This is a constant source of confusion among visitors to the building, who invariably look at the print document before them and ask, “Is this the original one?” When told that it is an original document, they then wonder what’s on display in Washington, DC. Rangers patiently explain that both documents are originals and explain why that is.
It is confusing. The basic source of confusion emerges from the perception many people have that the engrossment of the Declaration—that is, the handwritten version on parchment—was made first, and only after that did print copies get made from that document. That’s not how it actually happened, but the popular myth persists: that the founders, having adopted the Declaration of Independence, then proceeded straight away to sign the nice big parchment document that was ready and waiting for them.
Here’s what really happened. On the evening of July 4, 1776, one or more members of the committee charged with drafting the Declaration—possibly including Thomas Jefferson—took a copy of Jefferson’s handwritten manuscript, including corrections and amendments, up to Dunlap’s print shop at 2nd and Market streets. Dunlap, who had a lucrative printing contract with Congress, was instructed to immediately print up copies of the document as a broadside. He did this over the evening of the fourth and into the fifth. Time was pressing. Congress had made its irrevocable decision to break from the British empire and now it had to let America and the world know the news. These broadsides were to be distributed all over the colonies so they could be read out in public and reprinted in newspapers by local printers. George Washington would get a copy. So would King George III.
The key point here is that Dunlap worked from Jefferson’s notes—and not the fancy parchment document, because that one didn’t exist yet. It wasn’t until July 19 that Congress ordered the Declaration to be “fairly engrossed on parchment” and to be “be signed by every member of Congress.” That engrossment wasn’t ready until August 2, more than four weeks later. That’s the day that members of the Congress started signing the Declaration, not July 4.
If you take a close look at the Dunlap Broadside you’ll notice a couple of things that reinforce this point and make that clearly distinguishes that document from both the engrossed version and every other official printing of the Declaration that came after. At the top it proclaims, “In Congress, July 4, a DECLARATION by the REPRESENTATIVES of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS Assembled.” All subsequent versions, including the engrossment, were titled “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America.” Note the addition of the word “unanimous.” The reason for the change is that on July 4, the Declaration had not been passed unanimously. The New York delegation had not received updated instructions from home in time so its members felt they had to abstain on the crucial vote. Not until July 9 did the New Yorkers finally get on board and approve the Declaration. The title of the engrossed version that followed was altered accordingly.
The other unique thing about the Dunlap Broadside is that something very prominent is missing from that document that is included on every other version: the names of the signers. The broadside includes only two names: John Hancock, whose name was placed there as the president of the Second Continental Congress; and Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress. Their names were included to underscore the official status and authority of the document. Apart from Hancock, none of the signers’ names appear on the Dunlap Broadside because at that point no-one had actually signed anything yet.
There’s one more thing about the broadside on display in the West Wing that makes it particularly special. This particular copy was originally in possession of John Nixon, a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia. It was the copy he used to make the first ever public announcement of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776. Keep in mind that news travelled more slowly in the 18th century than today. On July 4 itself nobody outside Congress—with the exception of John Dunlap and his colleagues—knew about the momentous decision that had been taken. It took days for the news to spread, and by July 8 people were still just finding out about what was going on. That day the city bells summoned the people of Philadelphia to the State House Yard—what today we call Independence Square—to hear a proclamation. Nixon, speaking from a platform originally constructed to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, read the entire text of the Declaration to the throngs that had gathered. (On July 8 every year the park service recreates the ceremony, with a park ranger playing Col. Nixon and other rangers in militia uniforms and colonial garb spread among the summer crowds distributing free copies of the Declaration and geeing up visitors to get into the spirit of the occasion with a hearty “Huzzah!” or two.)
Fortunately for posterity, Col. Nixon kept his copy of the broadside. It remained in his family for generations until his descendants donated it to the National Park Service. That’s why it’s available for anyone visiting Independence National Historical Park to read today. It’s incredible to think that when you’re in the West Wing and stop to read the Dunlap Broadside there you’re reading the very same printed words that were used to publicly communicate the contents of the Declaration of Independence for the first time ever.
One final note: If you want to see the original Dunlap Broadside you’ll need to visit the West Wing in the second half of the year. For preservation purposes the park service swaps out the original for a facsimile six months out of the year. The original usually goes out on display just before the July 4 holiday and sticks around till the end of the year.
Creating the Declaration: A Timeline. National Archives. Available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_timeline.html
Determining the Facts, Reading 2: From State House to World Heritage Site. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/132independence/132facts4.htm