Holt broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence on display at Cincinnati Museum Center

CINCINNATI – A seminal document in our nation’s founding will soon be on display at Cincinnati Museum Center. The Holt broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence was instrumental to the unanimous vote for independence. Part of Cincinnati Museum Center’s collections since the 1870s, the Holt broadside will be on public display for the first time on May 15, more than two centuries after its printing.

Holt broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence

Holt broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence

Among the most revered documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence – largely the work of Thomas Jefferson – itself has a remarkable history. After considerable debate, the Continental Congress adopted the momentous Declaration on July 4, 1776, with endorsements of twelve out of the thirteen colonies. Only the delegates representing New York had not yet been empowered by the New York Provincial Congress to vote for independence.

Nevertheless, the Continental Congress authorized Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to set in type and print an unknown number of copies of the official document on the evening of July 4. These were to be distributed to the appropriate state legislatures, assemblies and high-ranking officers. In a world without telegraph, radio or other instant means of communication, these large-format, printed broadsides or handbills – similar to posters – were circulated by express riders to the newly independent states. With the arrival of Dunlap’s broadside printing of the Declaration, the New York Provincial Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 9. With New York’s vote, independence had been unanimously approved by all thirteen colonies.

“It is in this document that the term ‘United States of America’ was first used,” notes Chris Coover, Christie’s specialist in American letters and documents. “The Declaration clearly constitutes the birth certificate of our nation.”

The New York Provincial Congress authorized printer and newspaper publisher John Holt to set in type his own edition of the Declaration of Independence. Holt’s official New York broadside was ordered in 500 copies and widely circulated. On the evening of July 9, 1776, thousands of soldiers from the Continental Army who had come from Boston to defend New York from the British were marched to the parade grounds in Manhattan, where General George Washington, using a Holt broadside, ordered his army to hear the reading of the declaration calling for American independence.

The Holt broadside was printed in two columns, with a decorative border as if to emphasize its significance. At the top is New York’s resolution in favor of independence and at the bottom is John Holt’s name and address. Copies of the Holt broadside were sent to Philadelphia where, on July 19, 1776, an official engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on parchment was ordered and signed by the members of the Continental Congress. This parchment document, complete with 56 signatures, is on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

“The Declaration of Independence is clearly among the most important, most revered documents in American history,” says Elizabeth Pierce, interim CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. “We are thrilled and honored to share the iconic words of the Declaration by displaying the Holt broadside, a version of the Declaration of Independence that predates the one that people of all ages from all around the world travel to DC to marvel at. This is truly a national treasure right here in Cincinnati.”

How the Holt broadside ended up in the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at Cincinnati Museum Center is fairly well documented. On the back of the document is the signature of Richard Fosdick, a native of New London, Connecticut, who brought the document, along with his family, across the mountains and down the Ohio River to settle in Cincinnati in 1810. Fosdick was considered Cincinnati’s first pork packer and was a member of Cincinnati’s first town council and was also a county treasurer. Following his death in 1837, his estate, including the broadside, was divided among his living children. One of his children or grandchildren likely donated the Holt broadside to the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, the predecessor of the Cincinnati History Library and Archives. “HISTORICAL & PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY OF OHIO” is stamped in ink on the back of the broadside, along with “Gen. U.S. History” written in pencil, denoting the cataloging category. A handwritten “18801” in red ink indicates that the document has been in the Society’s holdings since the 1870s.

Any 18th century document is rare, but no one was sure just how rare the Holt broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence was. In 2010, Christie’s confirmed that, in addition to the copy in the collections of Cincinnati Museum Center, only three other copies of the Holt broadside are known to exist. They are in the collections of the Westchester County Archives in Elmsford, New York, the New York Public Library in New York City and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

The Holt broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence will be on display in the Treasures of Our Military Past exhibit at Cincinnati Museum Center beginning May 15. There it will be the centerpiece of an exhibit dedicated to the men and women who have sacrificed to defend the truths that Americans have held to be self-evident for over two centuries.

For more information, visit www.cincymuseum.org