When many people think of the United States Declaration of Independence, they picture the elaborate calligraphy “fairly engrossed on parchment” by Timothy Matlack with signatures by the members of Congress, including the now-famous signature of John Hancock. That version, now faded to near illegibility, is often considered the definitive incarnation of the Declaration, and is the subject of several facsimiles. However, that iconic document was not signed until August 2, 1776 – almost an entire month after the original Declaration was published. The purely typographic broadside that was distributed exactly 236 years ago today, now known as the Dunlap Broadside, is the first version that actually spread the Declaration of Independence to the rest of the world.
On July 4th, 1776, immediately after the Declaration of Independence was formally ratified by the Second Continental Congress, the drafting committee of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston was appointed to “superintend and correct the press” – essentially to go on a press check – for the first printing of this historic document. The printing was assigned to John Dunlap, whose print shop was just blocks from the State House (Independence Hall). He worked into the night of July 4 to typeset and print what has been estimated at around 200 copies of the Declaration for distribution the following day.
Ironically, most of the type used by Dunlap to compose the document is likely from the Caslon type foundry – a British company, and later “letter-founder to the King”. In fact, the 1785 Caslon specimen book was even dedicated to King George III – the same King that the American colonists were declaring independence from.
But perhaps the choice of typefaces by Dunlap shouldn’t be criticized too harshly, as the options for type in the colonies at the time were quite limited. As type historian James Mosley expressed in a recent e-mail on the topic:
It seems to me that the frequent use of types from the Caslon foundry in the colonies was the result of having had a reliable source of decent types in London for many years. Some other printing of the time in North America was done in much worse type. I sometimes think that it would have made political sense to use one of the new types being made in the Baskerville style for this job, but the readers would probably not have noticed the difference and the client would not have wanted to wait.
Though the committee appointed to oversee the printing included Benjamin Franklin, himself a printer and type enthusiast, there were much larger issues than the choice of typefaces to worry about at the time. As John Adams later wrote of the Declaration’s inception: “We were all in haste.”
I compared a high-resolution image of the Dunlap Broadside from the U.S. Library of Congress with types in the 1766 Caslon type specimen book at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Indeed, most of the types seem to have a match with samples shown in Caslon’s specimen book which would have been 10 years old at the time. However, the matches between the two documents aren’t always complete or definitive in any way. For example, the words “A DECLARATION” appear to match Caslon’s Four Lines Pica very closely, except for the E, which is narrower, with larger serifs on the crossbars.
Due to relatively crude printing and the deterioration that comes with time, things get even trickier in identifying the smaller sizes of the Dunlap broadside. James Mosley estimates the body type to be Caslon’s English Roman No. 1, but as far as I can see, it could conceivably also be English Roman No. 2 or any number of other similar types from competing foundries.
There are a variety of similarly close-but-not-perfect matches to types from the 1766 Caslon book, with many possible explanations:
- Some of the type might not actually be authentic Caslon type, but just an imitation. As Mosley notes, for example, “many of the smaller sizes of Caslon-style types that were made for the Fry foundry are as convincing Caslon types as Caslon’s own.”
- Caslon may have altered some of his typefaces between 1766 (when the specimen I used was published) and whenever Dunlap acquired his type.
- A piece of type from a similar font may have been used, either by accident or to fill in due to a shortage of sorts in the original font.
All of these possibilities are just the tip of the iceberg of ideas that beg further investigation to better identify the types used. I imagine this will be an ongoing project.
As for the of the typographic arrangement of the Dunlap broadside, it matches very closely with typography of the day. There is a liberal use of small caps, some of which appear not to be “true” small caps. As Mosley explains:
We now think of small caps as having to be drawn specially to match the weight of the lower case, but so far as I can see, the small caps in the Caslon types are simply capitals of smaller sizes cast to range with lower case. A proper Microsoft Word technique. In France they did things differently.
The line lengths of the broadside are staggering, somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 characters per line. This vast measure – about twice the currently accepted standard for comfortable reading – must have made it difficult for the broadside to be read to George Washington’s troops as it was on July 9, 1776. The two-colomn version published by Dunlap himself in Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet on July 8th, 1776 makes it much easier to get from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.
Modern readers of the Dunlap Broadside might be confused by the long s (ſ) character which is often misread as the letter f, especially when relatively crude printing is involved. This alternate form of the s, as seen in words like “ſelf-evident”, began to fade from English typesetting around the turn of the 19th century, but was still quite typical for American printing in 1776.
Another typesetting technique which may stand out to modern eyes is the decidedly large space inserted between sentences. This approach is much larger than the customary single word-space we use today but, like the long s, was not unusual in 1776.
Other large spaces are found within sentences throughout the broadside. This is due mostly to the justification of multi-line paragraphs, but there are noticeably large word spaces in some of the left-aligned single-line paragraphs as well. This may be partially the result of a lack of spacing material on hand in Dunlap’s shop at the time. Library of Congress librarian Frederick R. Goff also noted in his 1976 comparison between different copies of the Dunlap Broadside that several erroneous characters had been removed in the proofing process, requiring the space on those lines to expand accordingly.
Finally, as though these faults in the typesetting weren’t enough, every single known copy of the broadside has been found to be printed slightly crooked on its paper.
From a modern perspective, all of these factors might add up to the Dunlap Broadside being considered a poor example of typographic composition. However, there is something about it which transcends any aesthetic critique or commentary on the typefaces. In many ways it is a piece of printing in the highest form. It carried its message – one of the most important messages in the history of Western culture – quickly to a larger number of people than would have been possible otherwise. That practice of printing, the one that secured John Dunlap a spot below John Hancock in the history books, is a big part of what the United States is founded on. In the end, the freedom of the press isn’t about composing conceptually or aesthetically pleasing layouts, it’s about facilitating the communication of ideas.
Modern typefaces of relevance
While there is a very long list of digital interpretations of Caslon’s work, the following typefaces seem particularly relevant to the topics discussed above.
- ITC Founders Caslon is a revival of Caslon’s types that retains the concept of “optical masters”, where different variations are provided for use at different sizes. Designed by the late Justin Howes, it also emulates the textured effect of letterpress printing on rough paper, giving the type a decidedly antique feeling.
- Williams Caslon Text revives the original readability of Caslon’s body types but does so without getting caught up on notions of authenticity. William Berkson describes his adaptation of Caslon for modern purposes in his article, Reviving Caslon.
- Adobe Caslon is Carol Twombly’s tour de force approach to reviving Caslon’s work. It is less focused on any one range of sizes but performs dutifully at small to medium settings.
- Big Caslon is Matthew Carter’s revival of some of the largest sizes cut by William Caslon. It retains some of the funky forms that aren’t present in Caslon’s other famously consistent body types.
- Caslon 540 is another interpretation of larger Caslon types. It was originally designed at American Type Founders in 1902 but has since been reincarnated in the digital realm.
- P22 Declaration is a family of script typefaces based on the popular calligraphic version of the Declaration of Independence.
In closing I would like to thank everyone who helped me place together the pieces of this article, most notably:
- The Library of Congress for providing a high-resolution image of their copy of the Dunlap Broadside
- The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University for allowing me to inspect and photograph their copy of Caslon’s 1766 specimen book
- William Berkson for his insights on the work of Caslon
- Paul Shaw for his insistence that I continue digging deeper
- And especially James Mosley for sharing his thoughts and previous notes on the types of the Dunlap Broadside, the types of the Caslon foundry, and colonial printing and type founding in general