Paper Money

Patriotic printers: John Dunlap's Declaration of Independence

This is the third in a series of articles taken from Patriotic Printers in the November 2015 issue of Coin World Monthly:

John Dunlap, 1747 to 1812 

The flame of liberty was lit at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on July 4, 1776, and proclaimed to the world by a printer who also served as a soldier.

After a month of debate, “the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled” solemnly published and declared “that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.”

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The Declaration of Independence, written and approved at a time when British forces were converging on the belligerent colonies, was a dangerous document for the signers and anyone else having anything to do with it.

The signers pledged to each other “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” in support of the declaration.

Printer John Dunlap, just 29, made no such pledge, but by setting the world-changing document in type, placed himself in harm’s way as much as any delegate. 

Dunlap, working in a brick building just across the street from the city’s market, took a handwritten copy of the Declaration and set it in type the night of July 4 so that it could immediately be dispatched to the newly independent states and the troops in the field.

Dunlap fled Philadelphia as the British closed in on the city during the fall of 1777. Patriots stripped the city of anything the British could use, including the Liberty Bell, before allowing the British to march in without opposition on Sept. 26, 1777. Dunlap moved his press to Lancaster, Pa., safely behind American lines, until the 15,000 occupying British troops evacuated the city on July 18, 1778.

Today the first printing of the Declaration — called the Dunlap Broadside — is an extraordinary piece of American history. Most of the 26 extant copies are sequestered in museums. A privately owned copy appears on the market perhaps once in a generation.

Less well-known, though, is the paper money Dunlap printed for Pennsylvania in 1777, 1780 and 1781 and for Virginia in 1781.

The first bills, dated April 10, 1777, were issued by Pennsylvania to support the army that was even then engaging the Redcoats in the field. Later that year, the British captured Philadelphia, and Dunlap and the revolutionary government decamped to Lancaster.

Dunlap also served in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and fought, by some accounts, alongside the Continental Army in the battles of Trenton and Princeton during the winter of 1776 and 1777.

A copy of the Dunlap Broadside sold at auction for more than $8 million in 2000. His paper money, though, fetches much less, often less than $100 in circulated condition.

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