The American Declaration of Independence Was First Printed by a Man from Strabane
County Tyrone-born John Dunlap was also George Washington's bodyguard, writes Cathal Coyle
Strabane has produced many famous sons, and one of them - John Dunlap - became one of the most successful printers of his era in America. He even had the honour of printing the first copies of the Declaration of Independence.
Dunlap was born in Meeting House Street in Strabane in 1746. When he was ten years old, he went to work as an apprentice to his uncle, William Dunlap, a leading printer and bookseller in Philadelphia, in the American colonies. In 1766, his uncle put his printing house in temporary care of his nephew in order to pursue religious studies.
Two years later, William took charge of the parish of Stratton in King and Queen County, Virginia, and decided to sell his shop and equipment to his nephew. Dr Benjamin Rush, a close friend, reported that John was so poor he lived in his shop, sleeping on the floor under his counter. At first John made a living by printing sermons, broadsides and handbills, before effectively turning it into a successful publishing company.
In November 1771, John Dunlap began the publication of the weekly Pennsylvania Packet, or The General Advertiser newspaper. During his time as publisher of the Packet, Dunlap wrote home to Ulster to encourage more of his fellow Irishmen to come to America: 'The young men of Ireland who wish to be free and happy should leave it and come here as quickly as possible. There is no place in the world where a man meets so rich a reward for conduct and industry.'
In 1773 Dunlap married Elizabeth Hayes Ellison. The same year, representatives from the 13 American colonies set up the ‘Continental Congress’ in order to work towards setting up a republic.
Dunlap was to play an important role in this American Revolution. He became an officer in the First Troop of Philadelphia City Cavalry, and saw action with George Washington as his bodyguard at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He continued in the Troop after the war, rising to the rank of major - and leading Pennsylvania's cavalry militia to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.
It was in 1776, however, that Dunlap secured a lucrative printing contract as ‘Printer to Congress’. In July of that year, fighting between the American colonists and the British forces had been going on for nearly a year. On July 2, the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence, and on July 4 they agreed to the final wording of the American Declaration of Independence.
That evening John Hancock (President of the Second Continental Congress) asked Dunlap to print broadside copies of the agreed-upon declaration that was signed by him as President and Charles Thomson as Secretary. It is thought that Dunlap printed as many as 200 broadsides that evening which were distributed to the members of Congress; and have since become known as the Dunlap broadsides, the first officially published versions of the Declaration of Independence.
Today, only 25 of these broadsides are known to exist - dispersed among American and British institutions and private owners. The whereabouts of the original document that was signed by Hancock and Thomson on July 4, 1776 is unknown.
However, an unsigned Dunlap broadside recently sold for $8.14 million, the highest price ever achieved to date for an object sold at an Internet auction. This copy was discovered in 1989 by a man browsing in a flea market who purchased a painting for four dollars because he was interested in the frame. Concealed in the backing of the frame was an original Dunlap Broadside.
By 1784, Dunlap's newspaper became a daily with a new title: the North American and United States Gazette. It was not the first daily in the United States - the Pennsylvania Evening Post had beat him to the punch in 1783 - but it became the first successful daily.
Dunlap also printed items for Pennsylvania's revolutionary government. By combining public pursuits with his printing business, Dunlap was able to establish a substantial fortune. An astute businessman and speculator, during the American Revolution he bought property confiscated from Loyalists who refused to take Pennsylvania's new loyalty oath.
In 1795, when he was 48 years of age, Dunlap was able to retire with a sizable estate. Retirement did not agree with him, however; according to Dr Benjamin Rush, Dunlap became a ‘drunkard’ in his final years.
Dunlap died in Philadelphia on November 27, 1812 and was buried with full military honours at Christ Church, Philadelphia. His birthplace in County Tyrone is marked by a plaque erected by Strabane District Council, while a treasure trove of ink, galleys and presses are hidden behind an 18th-century shop front situated in the heart of Strabane.
Gray's Printing Press is where Dunlap is said to have learned his trade as a young boy before migrating to Pennsylvania. Today the National Trust is responsible for the upkeep of the printing press, and tours of the site are available on request.