What happened on July 4? Not what you might think

Rare copy of Declaration of Independence now on view at Washington University


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 more than 200 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. But it would be weeks before the Founding Fathers actually signed the handwritten document now housed in the National Archives in Washington.

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

One of the few surviving broadsides of the Declaration of Independence is now on view in the recently expanded John M. Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis. The broadside was a gift from the family of Eric and Evelyn Newman.

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 at Washington University in St. Louis. “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 declaration is the centerpiece of a reimagined Olin Library, which provides new spaces for study and exploration, enhanced technology, a new north entrance and a vault to house the university’s growing special collections. The carefully designed exhibit space has humidity and temperature controls and is darkly lit to reduce fading. It also features a digitized replica of the declaration with a touchscreen that explores the document’s history and significance. 

Denise Stephens, university librarian and vice provost, is thrilled that Olin Library can share the declaration with the public. She counts the declaration’s public debut in May as one of her proudest moments as a librarian.

“Thousands of members of the Washington University community were here to see this one thing,” Stephens said. “You could see the regard and reverence on their faces. That made all of the work that has gone into the declaration’s conservation and exhibition worth it. After all, it’s not just our artifact; it belongs to everyone.” 


The regular designated viewing hours for the Declaration of Independence exhibit are  9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Olin Library will be closed July 4. 

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