The United States Declaration of Independence

A recently discovered copy of the first official version of the Declaration of Independence, printed in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress on the night of July 4, 1776, soon to go on public display throughout the United States, will do so partly thanks to a University of Chicago student, Richard D. Smith, a doctoral candidate in the University’s Graduate Library School.

Smith is the inventor of a deacidifying process for preserving books, documents, and works of art. Known as the “Chicago Process”, it was used by the R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company of Chicago to preserve the document and retard its rate of deterioration.

Smith’s process is based on a nonaqueous solution consisting of an organic solvent and a moderately alkaline deacidifying chemical agent. Documents impregnated with this solution by immersion, spraying, or brushing are protected against acid attack, and their life expectancy is prolonged indefinitely.

The discovery of the “lost” copy of the Declaration of Independence is a fascinating historical footnote. In December, 1968, when the famous Leary’s Book Store in Philadelphia was preparing to go out of business after 132 years in the same building, an inventory was made.

On the sixth floor of the building, a wooden crate, practically forgotten since its acquisition in 1911, was found and opened. In it lay the copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was authenticated by Frederick R. Goff, chief of the rare book division of the Library of Congress, as one of the original copies printed on the night of July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, by John Dunlap, the official printer for the Continental Congress.

It is the only copy of the Declaration of Independence ever offered for public sale and the only one now privately owned. The other fifteen known copies are owned by public institutions, universities, museums, and libraries.

This “lost” copy, offered at auction on May 7, 1969, was purchased by Ira G. Corn, Jr., acting for himself and Joseph P. Driscoll, chairman of the Board of the Michigan General Corporation, for $404,000, the highest price ever paid for a printed document. Mr. Corn is a University of Chicago graduate (AB ’47 and MBA ’48) and the chairman of the Executive Committee, and the senior executive officer of the Michigan General Corporation, Dallas, Texas.

Reprinted by permission from ‘The University of Chicago Magazine’ May/June 1970, Volume 62, Number 6.

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