University receives rare copy of Declaration of Independence

'National treasure' to go on permanent display at Olin Library in spring 2018

Scroll over the above image to learn more about this historic document. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

What happened on July 4, 1776?

Not what you might think.

On that historic day 240 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. But it would be weeks before the Founding Fathers would actually sign the handwritten document now housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, official broadsides — the public service announcements of the day — were printed and posted on the doors of courthouses across the colonies.

Thanks to the family of Eric and Evelyn Newman, the John M. Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis now is in possession of one of the few surviving broadsides of the Declaration of Independence. It will go on permanent display at Olin Library in spring 2018.

Printed by Solomon Southwick for the people of Rhode Island, the Declaration proclaims, “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“To read this broadside would have been a momentous occasion,” said David Konig, professor of history in Arts & Sciences and of law in the School of Law. “You can imagine the people of the time gathering to read and debate the Declaration. Broadsides were the way the government communicated with the people.”

The exhibit of the Declaration will be the centerpiece of a reimagined Olin Library, which will provide new spaces for study and exploration, enhanced technology, a new north entrance and a vault to house the university’s growing special collections. The Eric P. and Evelyn E. Newman Foundation and the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society have provided a $10 million lead gift to assist in the transformation of  the library.

Jeffrey Trzeciak, university librarian, hopes the public will embrace this important artifact and ponder its role in history.

“I think people will have an emotional response when they see the Declaration, and we hope that they’ll be coming back again and again and again,” Trzeciak said. “It’s clearly a national treasure — a foundational document for our country and so much of it still resonates today.”

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