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Declared: Jefferson's Handwritten Declaration of Independence at NYPL

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By Julia Zorthian

Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, wrote the Declaration of Independence when he was a delegate to the Continental Congress representing his home state of Virginia. But the Declaration that students read in textbooks doesn't include everything Jefferson originally set down on the page.

Luckily, on Independence Day and through the end of this month, visitors to The New York Public Library can see the author's original words on display in NYPL's landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street; the exhibition will even be open on Independence Day and Monday, July 5, from 1 to 5 p.m.

Written in Jefferson's hand, the manuscript is one of five fair copies he made between July 4 and July 10, 1776, to send to friends and colleagues. (A fair copy is a clean, full-text version without corrections or alterations.)

One of the most interesting aspects of the fair copy involves the future President's thoughts about slavery. Although Jefferson wrote a long condemnation of slavery, it was deleted from the final version adopted by the Continental Congress. In the Library's fair copy, he underlined the sections that the Continental Congress changed. The Library's exhibition includes the first New York printing of the final version of the Declaration issued by Congress, so readers can compare the two versions.

"According to Jefferson's later correspondence, the [slavery] compromise was made not only to appease delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, but also to ease the minds of northern delegates who traded in slaves," said William Stingone, Charles J. Liebman Curator of Manuscripts for NYPL.

Declaration of Independence.  ... Digital ID: psnypl_mss_1228. New York Public LibraryThis copy offers more than a glimpse of a Founding Father's handwriting. The precious draft--one of only two known to survive intact--opens a window into Jefferson's mind.

It "represents Jefferson's thoughts about what the Declaration should be and how it should be read," said Stingone.

"Having this copy and comparing it to the final version shows us a little bit about--or a lot about--the deliberations of the Continental Congress and the compromises that had to be made." Stingone also pointed out that, for him, "there's not as much active curation or preservation to be done. Because we have proper storage facilities and proper climate control, maintenance is really easy." Stingone's main role, he said, is to "keep it safe."

Beyond its annual Fourth of July public appearance, the Declaration lives behind thick glass and even thicker locked doors most of the year--a great comfort to the custodian of this priceless artifact from America's founding moments.

"Every time you're coming up in the elevator with that thing, that's when you start to get nervous," Stingone added, not completely in jest.

The Library acquired the Declaration in 1896 through a purchase of the papers of Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, who collected letters and other documents from the Revolutionary period. Emmet developed a passionate interest in American history after a boyhood visit to Philadelphia, when he first saw an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Treasures of NYPL: Thomas Jefferson's Autograph Copy of the Declaration of Independence
NYPL Digital Gallery: Emmet Collection of Illustrations Relating to the American Revolution and Early U.S. History
Transcript of Thomas Jefferson's Fair Copy [PDF]