Shiels Heritage

John Dunlap and the U.S. Declaration of Independence



The United States celebrates it Independence Day on the 4th July. The date commemorates the Declaration of Independence, a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on 4th July, 1776. A total of 56 men representing the 13 colonies would eventually sign this document, a group that included three Irishmen: James Smith, George Taylor (both representing Pennsylvania) and Matthew Thornton (representing New Hampshire). However another Irishman would also play a key role on that momentous occasion, and be responsible for the production of some of the most important archaeological artefacts in United States history.

Three Pence Note printed by John Dunlap, Philadelphia, 1777

John Dunlap was born on Meetinghouse Street, Strabane, Co. Tyrone in 1747. Ten years later he was en-route to Philadelphia, where he became an apprentice printer to his Uncle, William Dunlap. In 1766 the Irishman took over his Uncle’s business, and in 1771 began to produce a weekly newspaper called the Pennsylvania Packet or The General Advertiser. He became the official government printer in 1776, a position that would lead to his name going down in history.

On the 4th July 1776 the Continental Congress made the text of the Declaration of Independence official. It had been prepared by the ‘Committee of Five’ which was made up of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The agreed document was taken to John Dunlap’s premises at 48 High Street, Philadelphia, where the Irishman had to work fast to produce around 200 copies of the document. What must have been an exciting but nerve-wracking occasion for Dunlap was probably accentuated by the fact that at least some of the committee were present during the printing; Congress had instructed that ‘the committee appointed to prepare the declaration superintend and correct the press.’ Despite the added pressure and the presence of such luminaries, Dunlap successfully produced the broadsides for distribution.

John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, 1776

Although 4th July is Independence Day, it was the 5th July that saw the first steps taken to inform the people of the 13 colonies, and indeed the wider world, about the Declaration. It was early on the morning of the 5th that Dunlap’s copies were completed and sent back to Congress, and riders set out with the broadsides to bring the news far and wide. Other copies were sent to political and military leaders, and by 6th July it was printed in The Pennsylvania Evening Post. It was first read in public by John Nixon on 8th July on the steps of the Philadelphia State House.

John Dunlap went on to serve as an officer in the Philadelphia Light Horse, and continued as a successful businessman, amassing considerable wealth most notably through property acquisitions. He died in Philadelphia on 27th November, 1812. Incredibly, some of the Irishman’s original run of the Declaration of Independence survive. Known as the ‘Dunlap Broadsides’, a total of 26 have been identified. Archaeological objects in their own right, they provide a physical link to the momentous night when the Strabane native played his part in the birth of the United States. Today his memory is kept alive in his native county, where a marker erected by Strabane District Council marks the site of his birth.