The United States' Declaration of Independence was handwritten by Thomas Jefferson. Why was this done instead of being printed with a printing press?

The Dunlap broadside was the first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence and was printed the night of July 4, 1776. Other broadsides were subsequently printed. Why didn't the Founding Fathers just print them out a day earlier and just sign one of those, saving the trouble of writing it out longhand and making it more legible?

Declaration of Independence Dunlap broadside

Left: Handwritten original, Right: Dunlap broadside

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    Because sometimes it is nice to handwrite important things. Dec 14, 2017 at 5:15
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    Also, the more time you give people to think about what they are about to sign, the more risks that one or more of them will think better. That is the whole point of a lot of commercial tactics based in presuring the customer into signing a contract ASAP. If this works for salesmen, all the better for documents that are a proof of treason.
    – SJuan76
    Dec 14, 2017 at 8:23
  • Not a bad question, but this is a question only someone born in the era of word-processors could have asked.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 14, 2017 at 17:23
  • To set the text on the printing press was a hard work, and non so often used even by professionals. And you had to stand next to the press. Sitting at a table was definitely more convenient.
    – Gangnus
    Dec 15, 2017 at 14:02

2 Answers 2


Remember that it takes several times longer to typeset a page (by hand, as in 1776) than to hand-write it; and that the typesetter still requires a hand-written fair copy to set from. So you don't save any time by only typesetting the document - as it must be first written out fair for the typesetter.

From Wikipedia on the Dunlap Broadside (my emphasis).

On July 4, 1776, Congress ordered the same committee charged with writing the document to "superintend and correct the press", that is, supervise the printing. Dunlap, an Irish immigrant then 29 years old, was tasked with the job; he apparently spent much of the night of July 4 setting type, correcting it, and running off the broadside sheets.

In the terminology of the time, a fair copy was the (error and correction free) copy made, for distribution, after all drafts were complete.

In high school I belonged to the club that volunteered to hand-set and print the school's brochures, flyers, and event programs on an ancient hand press. Modest experience only; but based on that I estimate that an experienced typesetter was no more than only a fifth or tenth as fast as a good calligrapher in producing a document. While multiple pages could be set in parallel by multiple setters, that is difficult to do for a single page.

My guess is that a first fair copy was penned by Jefferson from the drafts for signing, and then either it or a second was supplied to the typesetters for working from.

  • When a newspaper was in a hurry, editors could set the page directly at the press. It is often mentioned in literature. So, a typesetter did not require a copy to set from. But of course, it would be MUCH more convenient to have such and less errors would be done this way.
    – Gangnus
    Dec 15, 2017 at 14:04
  • @Gangnus: An editor doesn't require a fair copy, because he IS the author. a type setter requires a fair copy because he is NOT the author. At our printing club we occasionally set the type right at the press as you describe, from rough notes supplied; but we were partial authors in those cases. Dunlap was an intelligent man, but he was not an author of the Declaration. Also, he was printing a document already a signed act of Congress. One usually desires to minimize errors in those. Dec 15, 2017 at 15:19
  • So, Jefferson could type set, if he had experience with that. We do not discuss Dunlap here, but Jefferson.
    – Gangnus
    Dec 15, 2017 at 21:35

Had the declaration been printed, it would have been subject to the stamp act. Paying for a stamp for a declaration would refute the content of the document. To avoid the problem, the founders wisely wrote the initial document. Now an independent country, subsequent printed editions no longer required stamps.

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    I'm pretty sure that British lawyers would have disputed your final sentence. Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Dec 14, 2017 at 14:54
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    It was printed; about 16 or so hours after the signing, in a run of what is estimated to be 200 copies.. Dec 14, 2017 at 17:16
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    You'd think they wouldn't have bothered immediately paying fees to an entity they'd just declared not sovereign. I'm just a 20th century guy though, so what do I know?
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 14, 2017 at 17:43
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    Do you mean the Stamp Act of 1765, which was repealed in 1766?
    – justCal
    Dec 14, 2017 at 20:23

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