The first official news coverage of America’s Declaration of Independence 238 years ago was one sentence buried amid four pages of text in a Pennsylvania newspaper. One of the few surviving copies now resides in Provo.
Two hundred thirty-eight years ago, a Pennsylvania journalist penned the first news coverage of what was likely to be the most important event in U.S. history. The entire story, buried beneath almost two pages of classified ads for runaway slaves, was one sentence — no longer than a tweet: “Philadelphia, July 3: Yesterday the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies free and independent states.”
John Adams, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, said the movement would be “the most memorable Epocha in the History of America,” according to the National Archives.
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams wrote. “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”
The newspaper, however, was able to sum it all up in that one remarkable, yet unmemorable sentence.
Fewer than 1,000 copies of the July 3, 1776, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette were printed, and only a handful of originals still exist. One copy, now stained and slightly faded behind a glass frame, recently made its way into the hands of Provo resident Brent Ashworth.
Brent Ashworth holds a rare 238-year-old original issue of the July 3, 1776, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette in Salt Lake City Tuesday, July 1, 2014. This newspaper was at one time owned by Benjamin Franklin and contains the first published announcement of the Declaration of Independence, which appears halfway down the third column of page two.
Ashworth marvels at the surprisingly underwhelming coverage of the event that would lead to war, independence and the birth of a nation.
“I wonder about the citizens reading this for the first time if they really gathered the importance of that,” he said. “Probably not.”
“Advertising is still important, but it was front page, back then.”
In his 60 years of collecting, Ashworth had heard of the Benjamin Franklin-owned newspaper but never believed he would see a copy of the July 3 issue. That changed last month when it appeared in an auction catalog.
“I was shocked,” he said. “It’s a very rare paper. … It’s a great piece.”
Not much is known of the copy that Ashworth now owns, other than it has traveled from collection to collection through generations of owners.
Last month the document sold online for $15,757 on RR Auction, according to the auction house. But Ashworth says monetary price is no indication of any artifact’s inherent value.
“It’s totally immaterial what it costs,” he said. “It’s the least important thing. … What something’s worth today, it may be worth less tomorrow, it may be worth more tomorrow. What does that have to do with the inherent value of it?”
The newspaper holds a place among other relics in Ashworth’s collection. What also stands out is an original facsimile of the Declaration of Independence with the words “W. J. Stone SC. Washn.” near the lower-left corner.
About 50 years after the signing of the Declaration, William Stone was commissioned by John Quincy Adams to make commemorative press copies of the Declaration. To do so, Stone used a “wet transfer” method which transferred some of the ink of the original document onto a thin, wet sheet of manuscript paper. That ink was then reimposed and engraved onto a copper plate, according to the National Archives.
Copies, such as the one Ashworth owns, were printed from Stone’s copper plate.
“I think the thing in collecting that means the most to me is it brings (history) alive,” Ashworth said. “These are real things; they’re kind of hard to argue with.”
Ashworth’s issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette and his copy of the Declaration of Independence will be on display Thursday and Friday at the Crandall Historical Printing Museum, 275 E. Center, in Provo.
Louis Crandall, the museum’s owner, says entrance fees will be waived for the two days to welcome visitors who come to see the rare items.
“It’s a treasure for the world,” Crandall said. “It tells the story of the founding of America.”
To Ashworth, the July 3 newspaper and the Declaration facsimile are reminders of the price of freedom that was and continues to be paid for in blood.
“There’s a real sacrifice that went on in founding this country,” Ashworth said. “I guess that’s all I’m concerned about. What I’m trying to do through my collection is to make those sacrifices real and the fact that it’s worth the sacrifice today, too.”