In Brief

Rare Copy of Declaration of Independence Will Go on Display at New York Public Library

The original document, one of only four surviving “fair copies” of the Declaration handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, will be on display on July 1 and 2, ahead of Independence Day.

Thomas Jefferson’s “fair copy” of The Declaration of Independence at the New York Public Library. Photo by Jonathan Blanc (courtesy the New York Public Library)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” Thomas Jefferson famously jotted down as he drafted the Declaration of Independence on July 1776. But not everything Jefferson wrote was included in the final version of the document. In celebration of Independence Day next week, the New York Public Library (NYPL) will give the public a chance to view an original copy of the Declaration written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand. The document, one of only four surviving “fair copies” of the Declaration written by Jefferson, will be on display for two days only on July 1 and 2.

The historic document will be placed in the Library’s Gottesman Hall on the first floor of its iconic building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The public will be able to view the Declaration of Independence on Monday, July 1 from 10am to 5pm and Tuesday, July 2 from 10am to 7pm.

The Declaration is currently held in the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. The original document was donated to the library in 1896 by its trustee John S. Kennedy, who previously purchased it from Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, a noted surgeon and collector of Americana.

A scan of the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand (courtesy the New York Public Library)

Jefferson completed the Declaration of Independence on July 1 of 1776, but it was ratified on July 4. The delay was caused by political pressure to amend the text, most famously removing a lengthy passage in which Jefferson condemns the slave trade. The change was made to appease delegates from Georgia and South Carolina. In the days following July 4,  a distressed Jefferson made several fair copies of his original text and sent them to five or six friends. NYPL’s copy is one of the four Jefferson “fair copies” that have remained intact.

Years later in 1781, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson wrote:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it …  Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?

After this limited viewing, the Declaration will next be displayed in the Polonsky Exhibition of the New York Public Library’s Treasures, a permanent exhibition scheduled to open in November 2020. The document will be featured alongside over 100 other items from the Library’s collections, including the original Bill of Rights, George Washington’s handwritten farewell address, and a letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand documenting his journey to the Americas.

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