J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Declaration of Independence and Big Capital

The folks at Seth Kaller, Inc., and the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries sent a report on a big sale:
The rare first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence we auctioned yesterday brought $632,500—a record price for any historic newspaper. . . . The July 6, 1776, edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post was only the second printing of the Declaration in any form. The copy sold yesterday is one of just four issues of the Post’s Declaration printing that have appeared at auction in the past 50 years.
The purchaser was David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group. Six years ago he bought an antique copy of the Magna Carta, then loaned it to the U.S. National Archives while funding a large display facility for the agency. He’s also made multimillion-dollar gifts to benefit Monticello and the Washington Monument.

In its booklet announcing this sale, with good photographs of the newspaper for sale and other 1776 printings of the Declaration, the firm noted the typographical differences between Benjamin Towne’s Post printing and the earlier official broadside issued for the Continental Congress by Pennsylvania Packet printer John Dunlap (shown above).
Both versions capitalize the beginning of sentences, proper names, and words such as “God,” “King,” “Prince,” etc., but excluding those, Dunlap capitalzes an additional 291 internal words (within sentences). However, Towne capitalizes only two internal words.

This observation led us to compare two June 1776 working drafts of the Declaration, one in Thomas Jefferson’s hand, and one copied from Jefferson’s draft by John Adams. The Adams copy follows the same pattern, with Adams capitalizing many words that Jefferson has in lower case.
The firm suggests that there might have been multiple manuscripts of the Declaration in July 1776, one used by Dunlap and one by Towne—one perhaps from Adams and one from Jefferson.

I think this analysis is missing an important factor. Almost all the words capitalized in Dunlap’s broadside but not in Towne’s newspaper are nouns. The rest are adjectives preceding important nouns. In eighteenth-century English it was still common, though old-fashioned, to capitalize all nouns and noun phrases (while capitalizing and italicizing proper nouns). Dunlap followed that rule of style for his Declaration broadside; Towne chose the more modern style for his newspaper reprint. The differences between the two printings could thus arise from each printer applying a systematic rule to the same text.

Was Dunlap guided by John Adams’s style? I doubt that since Dunlap also published Adams’s Thoughts on Government in 1776, and that pamphlet didn’t capitalize most nouns, as this careful transcript shows. (I also checked images of the pamphlet, but I can’t link to them.) Adams did capitalize many nouns, though irregularly, in the letters leading up to that pamphlet. Thus, I conclude:
  • Dunlap didn’t conform to Adams’s capitalization when setting his manuscripts.
  • Dunlap didn’t always capitalize all nouns, even in serious publications like Adams’s pamphlet.
Dunlap also didn’t capitalize most nouns in his newspaper, and neither did Towne.

On the other hand, when the Congress issued a broadside on 10 Dec 1776 (about “the Army that now threatens to take Poessession of this City”), Dunlap reached into the capital case again. So it appears that someone important at the Congress in 1776 liked Big Letters for its major announcements.

I haven’t done a systematic survey, but I did see that when the Congress issued its “Address to the Inhabitants of the United States” in May 1778, with Henry Laurens as presiding officer, Dunlap did not use the extra capitals. And John Hancock had gone home.


John L Smith Jr said...

I always find the Language of the founding Era Fascinating, aside from those infernal Long S's. (I wonder how much the fact that typesetters only had certain amounts of letters to set newspapers and broadsides with could influence their use of upper case or lower?!)

J. L. Bell said...

I can imagine a printer coming to the end of a newspaper page and fudging a bit on the style he (or occasionally she) had chosen, but it seems impractical to count up the number of different letters in a text before deciding on a style.

Robert S. Paul said...

The difference in capitalization and my constant reading of 18th Century documents has ruined my ability to capitalize correctly in modern grammatical settings.

Marshall Stack said...

...but you find so much more historical information on the internet by searching for "Bofton" and "Caftle Ifland". :)

Anonymous said...

Make sense. Seems to me that a newspaper printer, knowing that he'd have multiple pages to typeset, would make his "house style" the one that used fewer capitals in general. He'd be saving a finite number of type pieces to use only when really necessary, as in proper nouns, place names, etc.

J. L. Bell said...

Conversely, if a Printer capitalizes all Nouns, then he uses fewer of the Letters from the lower Case, spreading out the Burden and minimizing the Risk of running out of those lowercase Letters.

I suspect that the Art of Printing had developed enough by the eighteenth Century that Printers knew how much Type they had to buy—which Letters in which Quantities—to keep a Shop running. As long as they or their Apprentices distributed the Type, all would be well.