John Dunlap, Irish printer who printed the first copies of the United States Declaration of Independence and one of the most successful Irish American printers of his era, dies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 27, 1812.
Dunlap is born in 1747 in Strabane, County Tyrone, in what is now Northern Ireland. When he is ten years old, he goes to work as an apprentice to his uncle, William Dunlap, a printer and bookseller in Philadelphia. In 1766, William Dunlap leaves the business in the care of his nephew, who eventually purchases the business. Initially he makes a living by printing sermons, broadsides and handbills. In November 1771, he begins the publication of the Pennsylvania Packet, or General Advertiser, a weekly newspaper. In 1773 he marries Elizabeth Hayes Ellison.
During the American Revolutionary War, Dunlap becomes an officer in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry and sees action with George Washington at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. He continues in the First City Troop after the war, rising to the rank of major, and leading Pennsylvania’s cavalry militia to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
In 1776, Dunlap secures a lucrative printing contract for the Continental Congress. In July 1776, fighting between the American colonists and the British forces had been going on for over a year. On July 2, the Second Continental Congress votes on the Lee Resolution to secede. Two days later, they approve the final wording of a public declaration regarding their decision, which ultimately comes to be known as the Declaration of Independence. President of Congress John Hancock signs the fair copy with Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson attesting it. That evening Hancock orders Dunlap to print broadside copies of the declaration. He prints perhaps 200 broadsides, since known as the Dunlap broadsides, which are the first published versions of the Declaration.
Dunlap also prints items for Pennsylvania’s revolutionary government. In 1777 he takes over the printing of the Journals of the Continental Congress from Robert Aitken, but loses the contract in 1779 after printing in his newspaper a letter from Thomas Paine that leaks news of the secret French aid to the Americans.
In 1784, Dunlap’s paper becomes a daily with a new title: the North American and United States Gazette. It is not the first daily in the United States as the Pennsylvania Evening Post is the first in 1783, but it becomes the first successful daily.
Continuing to serve the changing needs of the government, Dunlap and his partner David Claypoole print the Constitution of the United States on September 19, 1787 for use by the Constitutional Convention, and later publish it for the first time in the Pennsylvania Packet.
Dunlap’s major financial success comes from real estate speculation. During the American Revolutionary War, he purchases property confiscated from Loyalists who refuse to take Pennsylvania’s new loyalty oath. After the war, he purchases land in Kentucky. By 1795, when he is forty-eight, he is able to retire with a sizable estate. Retirement does not agree with him, however. According to his friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, he becomes a drunkard in his final years. He dies in Philadelphia on November 27, 1812.