Rhode Islanders get rare opportunity to view Declaration of Independence
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island State Archives is home to millions of letters, photographs and important state documents that capture the smallest state’s deep, rich history, but some of the most impressive artifacts date back to the birth of our nation.
The Rhode Island State Archives houses four copies of the Declaration of Independence, as well as an original draft of the Bill of Rights among its vast collection. And while these documents are normally tucked away in a climate controlled vault for preservation purposes, members of the public got a rare, up close opportunity to see them out on display last week.
“They each have something special to offer, and they’re each different in their own way,” State Archivist Ashley Selima explained to members of the public last Friday. “The documents served very distinct and different purposes, but they were very foundational to the United States, and they do capture the spirit of the Revolution.”
One of the four copies on display was printed by Solomon Southwick of Newport, who was charged with sending a copy to each of the 28 existing cities and towns in Rhode Island at the time. There are only about six or seven of these broadsides believed “to still be out there in the wild,” according to Selima, and the copy in the Rhode Island State Archives possession initially belonged to the Town of West Greenwich.
Interestingly, the printing press used by Southwick had once belonged to Benjamin Franklin’s older brother — James Franklin.
The broadsides printed on this press were created working off of the first copies in existence. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Congress hired a nearby local printer, John Dunlap of Philadelphia, to print and distribute broadsides to each of the original 13 colonies.
“A copy of John Dunlap’s printing was sent to each of the colonies to get the word out as quickly as possible,” Selima explained, which was then sent to a local printer “to create a version to disseminate amongst their cities or towns.”
Southwick’s broadsides were essentially meant to announce “what was about to happen” to colonists in every community.
The Rhode Island State Archives houses a wide expanse of fascinating documents, but the Declaration of Independence printed by Mary Katharine Goddard in 1777 is among Selima’s favorites. The printing was already unique enough on its own, but the fact that it was printed by a woman makes it even more noteworthy.
The names attached to the printings of these historical documents “are not something you think about very often,” according to Selima, but Goddard went down in history as being the first woman to sign her name to the Declaration of Independence.
Another remarkable feature of the Goddard printing was that it was “the first broadside — the first copy — that was disseminated with the names of the signers.”
Selima later went on to recount the infamous tale of John Hancock signing his name to the Declaration of Independence, after one of the event’s youngest attendees asked who had been brave enough to sign first.
The letter that was sent to the state of Rhode Island, along with the document, was also signed by John Hancock. These attached documents, explaining the significance of what they were accompanying, were commonplace during the time period, serving “almost like a cover letter.”
This unique copy unfortunately fell into disrepair during its lifetime, though thankfully, Northeast Document Preservation Center in North Andover, Massachusetts, were able to revitalize the document through a painstakingly meticulous conservation and preservation project.
Before being restored to almost original condition, the document “had just about fissured into three large pieces,” according to Selima, and needed the specialized care of document restorationists to ensure its survival.
Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, who invited the public to this rare viewing opportunity in celebration of Independence Day, explained the seemingly counterintuitive and unsettling restoration process, which calls for completely submerging the document under water.
Rehydrating the document allowed specialists to remove the lining on the back of the document, which had been put there a century before, funny enough, in an attempt to preserve the document. Instead, this dated preservation method was actually eating away at the document over time.
The restoration efforts were so successful that the Rhode Island State Archives were finally able to read the back of the document.
“We knew there was writing on the back, but unfortunately, we could only guess at what it said,” Selima said. “This was very special, because this is something we were able to essentially rescue and maintain.”
Much to the disappointment of film enthusiasts, the writing on the back of the Declaration isn’t a hidden treasure map, though, as “National Treasure” has led some to believe. Instead, a simple inscription reading “endorsed and signed into the General Assembly,” are the only words found.
The other two copies in the care of the Rhode Island State Archives are perhaps the most recognizable, according to Selima.
In 1820, then US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams recognized that the endorsed copy of the Declaration kept at the national level was already starting to fade. Though the original copy is still preserved by the National Archives, Adams ordered William Stone, an engraver from Washington, to make 200 printings.
“It’s probably the one that’s most familiar,” Selima said. “When you come up to this table, it’s going to be the one that gives you that initial, ‘oh, that’s the document!’”
“It’s more of a piece of art, in my opinion, than the other copies,” she added. “The other two are tremendous, they served a very important purpose, but this one served the purpose of preserving the visual nature of the document that means so much to the country.”
The engraved copies also clearly show the names of Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery — the two signers from Rhode Island.
One of 13 original drafts of the Bill of Rights — signed by George Washington, and initially including 12 Amendments — was also put out on display last week.
The Rhode Island State Archives houses 380 years of history, but the governing body charged with caring for and preserving these documents wasn’t established until 1989. Before then, these documents were always in the care of the government, and under the charge of the Rhode Island Secretary of State, but preservation improvements made in recent years will help ensure the continued existence of the archives.
Last year, the archives were moved to their new home at 33 Broad Street, out of a rented Westminster Street building basement — in a flood zone — where they had meant to be “temporarily” stored, but remained for years.
In the future, Gorbea hopes to see Rhode Island build a state archive and history center in downtown Providence, similar to other state’s archive centers, but for now, the new location is an improvement from what they had. Most importantly, the 5,070 square-foot, climate controlled vault isn’t in a flood zone.
“We have a collection that other states would die for,” Gorbea said. “We need that space where we can tell our history and have a space for reflection. There’s moments in history that have been fantastic, and others where we really should have done better.”