American pride and independence writ large

Specialist Peter Klarnet tells the stories behind two precious pieces of Americana offered in New York — a proof copy of the Declaration of Independence, and the first dated printing of The Star-Spangled Banner in private hands

 ‘If the Declaration of Independence gives the reasons why the colonies decided to leave the British Empire,’ says Peter Klarnet, Books and Manuscripts specialist at Christie’s in New York, ‘then The Star-Spangled Banner  marks the conclusion of that struggle.’ 

In 1820 roughly 40 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by Congress and signed in Philadelphia Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned a young printer, William J. Stone, to execute a full-scale facsimile of the Declaration, which had badly deteriorated in the intervening years. It took Stone almost three years to complete his engraving work on the copper plate.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence Congress ordered an edition of 201 copies, intended for presentation purposes, to be printed on fine-quality vellum. Of the resulting prints, two each were given to the President and Vice President; two to former President James Madison; 20 copies to the two Houses of Congress; two to the Marquis de Lafayette; 12 copies for the departments of government; two copies for Thomas Jefferson, Charles Carroll and John Adams; two for the President’s house; one each to the Governors of the states and territories; one copy to the councils of the territories; and the remaining copies to the various universities and colleges of the United States. Today, approximately 50 copies are known to have survived.

Before printing the final copies of the Declaration on vellum laboriously prepared from individual whole calf skins, and extremely expensive Stone produced trial proofs on wove paper. On 14 June, one of only six known proof copies will be offered in the Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts  sale at Christie’s in New York.

‘It’s only been in the past couples of decades that we’ve learned about these proofs, which are among the first impressions ever made of the Declaration’

‘It’s only been in the past couples of decades that we’ve learned about these proofs, which are among the first impressions ever made of the Declaration,’ says Klarnet. 

One of the distinguishing marks Stone added was a little diagonal line, which does not exist in the original. ‘It was a way to identify this as a copy of the official document,’ explains the specialist. 

‘Stone’s engraving has become the image that we all identify with the Declaration of Independence,’ Klarnet adds. ‘Without this engraving, we’d never really know what it looked like.’ The original copper plate used by Stone is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Also offered on 14 June is the earliest dated printing of The Star-Spangled Banner  in private hands — which is also the song’s first appearance in a newspaper, published just days after its composition by Francis Scott Key.

The United States’ national anthem was written at a low point for the new nation during the the War of 1812. Two years into the war, in August 1814, the British captured Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol. They turned next to attack Baltimore. 

Key, a young Baltimore attorney, had been on a British warship negotiating a prisoner exchange when he was detained and held captive by the British fleet near the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. ‘He was obliged to stay aboard the warship as it began its bombardment of Fort McHenry on 13 September,’ explains Klarnet.

The British troops failed to subdue Fort McHenry, and a jubilant Key immediately began a rough draft of what would become The Star-Spangled Banner. Over the next several days the invaders abandoned their assault, and Key finished his composition on the night of his release in the room of a Baltimore inn.

Above the lyrics, a note describes the “beautiful and animated effusion, which is destined to long outlast the occasion and outlive the impulse which produced it”

‘The poem that he wrote was set to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven, a popular British drinking song,’ Klarnet notes. The composition struck a chord among Baltimore’s battle-weary citizens, and the song was quickly printed as a broadside handbill. Days later it was passed to the Baltimore Patriot, one of the two major newspapers in the city. 

Above the lyrics, a note describes the composition of the ‘beautiful and animated effusion, which is destined to long outlast the occasion and outlive the impulse which produced it.’

‘It's almost a prediction that this song would become extraordinarily popular and live beyond its original circumstances, which it very much did,’ observes Klarnet.

Today, only three other copies of this issue of the Baltimore Patriot  are known to exist. Of these, two are in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, in Massachusetts; the other is held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. No other full issues or clippings from the 20 September 1814 edition are known to be in private hands.