THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

04 July 2015

Happy Birthday, Declaration of Independence!

Today is the 4th of July, the birthday of one of the most famous documents in the world, the United States Declaration of Independence. This year we are celebrating another very important birthday at the British Library, namely the 800th anniversary (yes, eight hundred years) of the granting of Magna Carta by King John of England in 1215.

But we do like to do things in style at the Library. And so, this summer, for the very first time in the United Kingdom, we have on display not only Magna Carta BUT ALSO Thomas Jefferson's own copy of the Declaration of Independence AND the Delaware manuscript of the United States Bill of Rights!!! These are all truly sensational documents in their own rights, each of them testament to the fight for establishing rights and liberties in various forms across the ages, and for attempting to limit the rule of tyrants.

We have kindly borrowed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence from New York Public Library, and it's a fascinating artefact. Made a few days or so after the Declaration was ratified by the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia on 4 July 1776, this manuscript preserves the original state of Jefferson's text, before it had been amended by his fellow delegates. Some of its words and phrases are underlined, and these represent passages which were omitted from the final version of the text. One of those omissions is highly poignant, since it contained Thomas Jefferson's proposal that the slave trade be abolished -- he described this trade in the manuscript draft on loan to us as an 'execrable commerce', and he labelled King George III a tyrant for presiding over the transportation of men from one hemisphere to another. It's extremely moving to see this manuscript in the flesh.

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HRH The Prince of Wales and exhibition curator Claire Breay looking at the Declaration of Independence at the opening of the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition

And just for good measure, the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition also contains a manuscript of the US Bill of Rights. This is the copy sent to Delaware in 1790, which was then sealed and returned to the federal government. We have been extremely fortunate to borrow this item from the US National Archives in Washington, DC, and we are extremely grateful to both of our lenders, and to the law firm White & Case for making these loans possible.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00581 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The Delaware manuscript of the United States Bill of Rights, currently on show at the British Library

And did you know another thing? If you're a big fan of American constitutional history, we're sure you'd like to know that you can also see one of the original printed copies of the US Declaration of Independence at the British Library this summer. Known as a 'Dunlap' printing (after its printer, John Dunlap), our copy was discovered by an American researcher in the United Kingdom National Archives in 2009, and has kindly been loaned to us by our friends at The National Archives.

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A Dunlap printing of the Declaration of Independence, found at the UK National Archives in 2009

So don't miss the opportunity to see all these magnificent documents alongside Magna Carta! It truly is a feast for anyone interested in the history of England and the United States of America. The exhibition is open until 1 September 2015, and you can buy tickets here. Alternatively, you can read more about these items in the exhibition catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website.

Julian Harrison

Co-curator, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

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