A nation's document: from draft to official Declaration

Brewer tasked as calligrapher



Two hundred thirty-seven years ago today, delegates to the Second Continental Congress did not sign the Declaration of Independence.

That happened a month later, after a clerk named Timothy Matlack prepared a 24 1/4-by-29 3/4-inch formal document, working from the revised version of Thomas Jefferson's draft.

Matlack, a Philadelphia brewer expelled by the Quakers for cock-fighting and stints in debtors prison, had learned to write in the fine, clear hand needed for official documents during his time as a merchant's apprentice.

He ended up with the Declaration job after he sold wine to sometime neighbor Benjamin Franklin, who hired Matlack as a scrivener, according to Chris Coelho, author of a recently published biography, "Timothy Matlack: Scribe of the Declaration of Independence."

Matlack was scooped from historical obscurity and turned into trivia fodder when his name showed up in the movie "National Treasure." A clue that the movie's characters find reads: "The legend writ, the stain affected, the key in silence undetected, fifty five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack can't offend." It leads to a (fictional) invisible map placed on the back of the Declaration of Independence by Matlack.

Mr. Coelho knew Matlack's name but decided to do more research after seeing the name dropped in the film.

Matlack was a "tall, outgoing, very personable" man, Mr. Coelho said. He was so talented and charismatic that the Society of Friends thought he could be a minister -- until his taste for horse racing, cock fighting, brawling and making a mess of his business ventures soured the Quakers on him.

He nevertheless made many political and business connections and was hired as a clerk by the First Continental Congress. One of his jobs was "engrossing" -- the process of preparing an official document.

Matlack engrossed the petition for redress of grievances sent to King George III by the Congress in 1774.

"That led to him being hired as a clerk for Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Second Continental Congress," said Mr. Coelho.

After Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence he shared it with Franklin and John Adams and incorporated their changes. Congress began to consider the Declaration July 2, 1776, and continued, making some revisions, until the morning of July 4. Church bells rang in Philadelphia that day announcing the adoption of the Declaration by the Congress.

The document was then taken to the printing shop of John Dunlap, where copies were made, likely under the supervision of Matlack. Those copies were distributed by members of Congress to local assemblies and the Continental Army on July 5, and a copy was placed in the "rough journal" of the Continental Congress, according to the National Archives. The text was followed by the words "Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President. Attest. Charles Thomson, Secretary."

The New York Convention approved the document a few days after the other colonies; on July 19 Congress ordered that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."

Matlack created the official document over the next weeks, correcting a couple of small errors he made in the margin.

He likely would have used a goose quill, considered higher quality than the more common turkey quill, said Michael Sull, an expert in penmanship from Gardner, Kan. The Declaration is written in English roundhand script, commonly known as "copperplate," said Mr. Sull. The style of calligraphic writing was reproduced by hand on copper plates for printing, thus the nickname, he said.

It is still used by White House calligraphers, who these days create more social documents such as invitations and honorary proclamations than official state documents.

The Aug. 2 journal of the Continental Congress indicates that "The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed."

The well-known signature of John Hancock -- bold and centered beneath the text -- was the first written on the parchment. The other delegates signed, their signatures arranged geographically from north (New Hampshire) to south (Georgia). Eventually nearly all the delegates signed the document, which is now on display at the National Archives.

Matlack went on to hold a variety of political and military offices during the Revolutionary era, and saw action at the Battle of Trenton in December of 1776 and the Battle of Princeton in early January of 1777.

He was active in Pennsylvania politics and represented the commonwealth at the trial for the court martial of Benedict Arnold. He was a staunch abolitionist and late in life was reconciled with the Society of Friends, Mr. Coehlo said.

The events of July 4, 1776, will be remembered this morning when re-enactors take the roles of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in the Archives building. They will be reading -- but not signing -- the Declaration of Independence.

The name of Chris Coelho was corrected in this article.

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Lillian Thomas: lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566. First Published July 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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