The Declaration of Independence is classified as a “broadside.” Broadsides are generally printed on one side of a sheet of paper and just like posters are used today, the majority of broadsides were created as ephemeral items to be posted outside for all to see for a specific purpose and then discarded. As a result, very few examples of each broadside have survived to the present day. The most famous example of a broadside is the printed version of the Declaration of Independence. The first copies were printed in Philadelphia by John Dunlap. The text was then disseminated to the other colonies that printed their own editions. Only five other copies of this Rhode Island edition are currently known to exist.
This edition was printed in Newport, Rhode Island by Solomon Southwick (1731-1797.) Southwick was born in Newport to a fisherman with whom he sold fish at the market in his youth. He was taken into the patronage of the wealthy Henry Collins and eventually was a member of the first class of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He married the daughter of Rhode Island Colonial Governor Colonel John Gardner which provided him with a large estate. In March, 1768 he bought the printing business of Samuel Hall. He was a passionate advocate for American independence and used his newspaper, the Newport Mercury, and his press to issue incendiary news and opinions. One can only imagine the joy he would have felt at receiving the text to print the Declaration of Independence. When the British moved to occupy Newport in December, 1776 Southwick fled by boat on stormy seas to Rehoboth, Mass. and set up a press there.
This edition of the Declaration also contains a typographical error which makes it even more unique. In 1915 bibliographer George Parker Winship wrote of it: “In his excitement at being the purveyor of what is probably the most momentous news ever to reach the American people, the Newport printer inadvertently set up his date-line as ‘June 13th’ rather than ‘July 13th’.
The R.I.H.S. Rhode Island Broadside Collection is unparalleled. This copy of the Declaration of Independence as well as a set of the earliest 100 broadsides in the R.I.H.S. collections dating from 1693 to 1777, which were previously not fully catalogued, are now accessible to researchers through the Society’s online catalog NETOP. The project was made possible by the generous support from the following organizations: Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the Revolution, Rhode Island Society of Colonial Wars, Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and the General Society of Colonial Wars.
~ Phoebe Bean, Librarian
Alden, John Eliot, ed. Rhode Island Imprints, 1727-1800. (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1949.)
Thomas, Isaiah. History of Printing in America. (Albany, N.Y.: Joel Munsell, 1874.)