By George Sells
At Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Library, there is a small, darkened room drawing a lot of attention. The word “Declaration” is emblazoned across the entrance in massive letters. Inside, both history, and mystery. The item that stands out is a rare copy of one of the nation’s most historic documents, the Declaration of Independence.
“There’s this painting where they’re showing all the founding fathers signing this document,” Rare Books Curator Cassie Brand explains. “That’s not what happened on July 4. On July 4, John Dunlop, who was a printer in Philadelphia, printed 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence, and that was sent throughout the colonies to Great Britain, to all the generals, to let them know that this had happened. One of these copies arrived in Rhode Island, where Solomon Southwick, a printer there, printed 29 more copies.”
The one at Washington University is one of those. As to why they were printed and distributed in this manner, Brand uses a more contemporary term.
“A way to prevent fake news,” she says. “Rumors are running rampant throughout the colonies during the Revolutionary War, and the Declaration and the broadside is the way to fight those rumors. They print them because it’s a lot faster than handwriting and it’s also an official document. So, these would be read in town squares by ministers or town officials.”
This copy was not intended to be a part of history’s archives. People of the time would have considered it little more than litter.
“Broadsides are usually printed on one side, which is why they’re called a broadside,” Brand says, “and it’s usually hung in a town square, on a church door, somewhere like that and then tossed away. Once everybody knew the news, you didn’t have to keep them anymore. So we’re very lucky some of these survived.”
The first mystery in the chamber surrounds how the document made it to St. Louis. It was printed in 1776. From there, it disappears. No one can tell you anything about its whereabouts for the next 160 years.
“That’s really fascinating, because it survived somehow from the 18th century through 1941 where we pick up its history,” Brand said. “We know it had been folded at one point, so it’s very possible somebody folded it up, stuck it in an attic somewhere then forgot about it, and passed it down through the centuries. It was bought by the Newman family in 1941 and the Newman family very generously donated it to us.”
“Just the opportunity to look at the document and see it for themselves. Just the reality of what it stands for.”
But the Declaration isn’t the only story in this small, darkened room. The other mystery here involves the document’s author. Thomas Jefferson, famously, was a lover of books. He had three libraries over the span of his life, the last of which disappeared after his death in the early 1800’s. What no one knew until very recently, is that his granddaughter’s husband, Joseph Coolidge, had bought the set of books.
“Eventually Joseph Coolidge’s collection was donated to WashU in 1885, and those books actually went into the circulating collection for the most part. And they were available for circulation, for study, for students to check out and take home,” Brand says.
You can see the signs of any normal library book, from the due date card, to the library identification, to the location numbers on the bindings. But you can also find handwritten notations from one of America’s founding fathers. And for 125 years, many of these could have been checked out by a student and plopped down in a dorm room next to a soda and an open box of pizza.
“Yes!” Brand says laughing. “Which for us sounds really weird, but when the books got here in 1885, they weren’t old. They weren’t rare. They became rare over time.”
Jefferson historians were looking for these 74 volumes for most of that lost century. They constitute the third largest Jefferson collection of books in the world. It wasn’t until 2010 that a researcher stumbled upon them here at Washington University in St. Louis.
“She called up special collections and said, you might want to check this out and see if some of these are Thomas Jefferson’s,” Brand said. “And they were able to rescue those from the circulating collections.”
Many things were discovered inside the books, even a piece of a plant Jefferson himself appeared to have been saving. But there is still another mystery surrounding these books. No one knows why Washington University is the place they were donated. Coolidge had no obvious connection to the school or St. Louis.
All of it is now at the Olin library for anyone to see. They are vital pieces of American history that can bring Independence Day, or any other day to life.