Independence Day, as some of us graybeards still call it _ ignoring the movie of the same name _ conjures up several vivid images. We imagine Mr. Jefferson in his Philadelphia rooming house, setting down the famous words, "When in the course of human events. . . ." We see John Hancock affixing his bold signature to the Declaration with a flourish, almost an act of defiance in itself.
What we don't usually see is that the manifesto we celebrate each July 4 was a collaborative product, hammered out in the same way that Congress has been doing with the Medicare prescription drug bill. And we don't recall that it was the press _ yes, that much-scorned institution _ that made the Declaration the rallying point for this noble experiment in self-government.
I am indebted to Thomas Starr, an associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston, for underlining these two points in an essay he wrote for the American Antiquarian Society in 2000 and summarized in a shorter article he completed just recently.
Professor Starr is not a conventional historian. He teaches graphic design and his approach to the holiday subject is shaped by his fascination with the way words are set down on paper.
As he notes, when we think of the Declaration of Independence, the visual image is of the parchment scroll with the badly faded writing, usually on display in a climate-controlled case in the National Archives in Washington, but now in safe storage while the building is remodeled.
But the parchment, with its fancy calligraphy, was an afterthought, Starr says. The Founding Fathers didn't get around to it until Aug. 2 _ and then only because the custom of the time required major state papers to be so inscribed. It was promptly filed away out of sight.
Almost a month earlier, on the day we celebrate as America's birthday, the Declaration was printed from movable type by Philadelphian John Dunlap, working overnight on the assignment. He was supplied with a much-revised text, prepared first by Jefferson and then edited by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. The entire Philadelphia assemblage spent two days trimming and revising the Declaration before turning the final text over to Dunlap.
It was the "Dunlap prints" that went by post and horseback throughout the 13 colonies _ soon to be republished by dozens of local newspapers and posted in public buildings in hundreds of towns.
The role of a printer and of the press in the creation of the nation is more than a matter of pride for my much-maligned business. Starr is eloquent in explaining why the printed version is even now of great significance.
"Today," he writes, "our relationship to the Declaration depends on the medium in which we view it. Where calligraphy promotes passive looking, typography invites active reading. Where calligraphy consigns the text to history, typography connects it to the present. Where calligraphy falsely exaggerates our difference from the Founders, typography accurately demonstrates our similarity to them. Where calligraphy discourages involvement and ownership, typography encourages engagement and participation.
"Through typography the text remains ubiquitous, readily available to every American. We can find it in our homes in encyclopedias and almanacs. It is in every library and bookstore. And, of course, it can be printed endlessly from the Web."
And those printed words do resonate. The version I am reading, from the World Almanac, has phrases that leap out in importance:
"A decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Do we still have it? Or has this once marginal assemblage of colonies, out on the edge of the known world, become so captivated with its own power that we no longer feel the need to justify our actions to anyone?
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Is our belief in equality truly self-evident? How does it jibe with the growing inequality of income and wealth and opportunity in this country? And is the pursuit of happiness, as now understood, wedded to the same sense of duty and responsibility that animated the men in Philadelphia?
"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." Are we privileged Americans, enjoying all the blessings the vision of the Founders provided, willing to pledge something of equal value to our society and our fellow citizens in our time? Are we worthy of the gift we have been given?
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.
Washington Post Writers Group