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Rare copy of Declaration of Independence on display at Wash U

A rare copy of the Declaration of Independence is currently on view at the John M. Olin Library on the Danforth Campus.
James Byard | Washington University in St. Louis
A rare copy of the Declaration of Independence is currently on view at the John M. Olin Library on the Danforth Campus.

Two hundred forty-two years ago this week, the American colonies formally declared their independence from Great Britain. But the Continental Congress’ adoption of the handwritten document – and the accompanying revolution – would not be televised or tweeted.

Instead, printed versions of the Declaration of Independence were quickly posted on courthouse doors throughout the colonies, where people gathered to read and discuss what had occurred.

Washington University is now home to one of the few broadsides that survive, and it’s currently on display at the university’s main library. A broadside is a large sheet of paper that – in a historical context – was posted in a public space to, among other things, announce events and proclamations.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the preservation and significance of this rare copy of the founding document.

“Whenever we teach history, we have to teach context,” explained David Konig, professor of law and emeritus professor of history at Washington University. “John Adams later said that only a third of the American people supported independence when it was declared, another third opposed it and another third had no opinion or were indifferent to it.

“So [sharing the document] was necessary in a democracy. I think that’s one of the things we forget is that there were no democracies at the time. This idea of starting a government based on the will of the people, the consent of the people actively engaged in politics was a radical and untried idea,” he said, explaining that posting the document in public spaces throughout the colonies was necessary to get the support of the people.

Nadia Ghasedi, David Konig and Cassie Brand joined host Don Marsh to talk about Wash U's rare copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Credit Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
Nadia Ghasedi, David Konig and Cassie Brand joined host Don Marsh to talk about Wash U's rare copy of the Declaration of Independence.

“To see students be able to connect with this sort of document is amazing,” said Cassie Brand, Washington University’s curator of rare books. “A lot of our collections are given to us by our wonderful donors and the Declaration of Independence is one of those items.”

The Newman family donated the declaration to Washington University in 2015. Known as the “Southwick Broadside,” it was posted in Warwick, Rhode Island and signed on the back by the town clerk.

Preserving a document that’s so old, however, and that’s of such historical importance is no easy task. The university acquired a custom built chamber to house it.

“It’s in its own case that has its own temperature and humidity controls,” said Nadia Ghasedi, associate university librarian for special collections.

The case was part of a large transformation project at the university’s libraries that cost more than $20 million. 

“We welcome the community to come out and see all these new spaces and engage with our exhibitions,” Ghasedi said.

Related Event

What: A Celebration of the Declaration of Independence

When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Where: John M. Olin Library (Room 142) at Washington University

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Copyright 2018 St. Louis Public Radio

Evie Hemphill joined the St. Louis on the Air team in February 2018. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2005, she started her career as a reporter for the Westminster Window in Colorado. Several years later she went on to pursue graduate work in creative writing at the University of Wyoming and moved to St. Louis upon earning an MFA in the spring of 2010. She worked as writer and editor for Washington University Libraries until 2014 and then spent several more years in public relations for the University of Missouri–St. Louis before making the shift to St. Louis Public Radio.
Alex Heuer joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2012 and is the executive producer of St. Louis on the Air. Alex grew up in the St. Louis area. He began his public radio career as a student reporter at Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Illinois and worked for a few years at Iowa Public Radio. Alex graduated summa cum laude from Western Illinois University with a degree in history and earned a teaching certificate in 6 - 12th grade social studies. In 2016, he earned a Master of Public Policy Administration with a focus in nonprofit organization management and leadership from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He has won local and national awards for reporting and producing and his stories have been featured nationally on Morning Edition and All Things Considered.