For John Dunlap, the night of July 4, 1776, was spent in the dim light of his Philadelphia print shop, churning out a first draft of history.
Earlier that day, Thomas Jefferson had presented his final version of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. It was quickly adopted and sent to Dunlap, who spent the sleepless night of July 4 printing hundreds of copies.
Only 25 of these "first printings" have resurfaced so far. Last week, the latest discovery, which had been tucked behind a painting sold for $4 at a flea market, was auctioned for $8.1 million.
While the sale shows the abiding allure of American history, it also raises the questions: Who should own American history, and should it be sold to the highest bidder?
With this 25th copy going to TV producer Norman Lear and Internet entrepreneur David Hayden, four of the first printings are now in private hands. Moreover, both Maine and Rhode Island are in disputes with citizens over whether other early copies of the declaration are public or private property.
"It's great that things are in public institutions and can be shared and shown," says Seth Kaller, director of rare documents and art at Wall Street Rarities in New York. "On the other hand, America is great because of private property and private ownership."
The "original copy" of the Declaration of Independence - the one that was signed by members of Congress - is at the National Archives in Washington. However, this famous copy wasn't signed until August 1776, when Congress returned to Philadelphia after a summer break.
Of the copies made before that, Dunlap's printings have made the most news. But in Maine and Rhode Island, the public vs. private disputes center not on Dunlap copies, but rather on others printed by states in the weeks following July 4.
These poster-sized copies, called broadsides, were tacked to the sides of town halls, sent to soldiers on the front lines, and ordered read from the pulpits "on the first Lord's-Day after they shall have received it."
Many of the Dunlap and state-printed copies were lost, burned by the British, or simply stowed in chests. Who owns them is now the subject of great debate.
"Back then, they didn't have a state archivist looking to the long term," says Peter Kerwin of the Rhode Island Secretary of State's office. In some cases, "the town clerk passed it on to the next town clerk. But in many cases, the clerk's office was their home."
The Rhode Island copy surfaced in 1989, when one of its first families donated it to Preserve Rhode Island. Recently, the group decided to auction it off to raise money for restoration of a 17th-century farmhouse.
One of only eight known copies printed by Solomon Southwick, this declaration was expected to fetch as much as $300,000. But the state halted the sale based on a note written on the back: "For the Town Clerk West Greenwich."
"This is an official state document, and it should stay in the public domain and not go into a private collection," says Secretary of State James Langevin. "It's part of our shared heritage."
In Maine's case, though, the issue of ownership is more murkier. The copy in question was sent to a Rev. Gilman. It was to be read after Sunday service and then given to the town clerk to officially record.
By all accounts, that happened, and it was returned to Gilman. "It was a private document in the hands of a private citizen," says Stan Klos, who bought the document for $99,000 at auction last summer.
But he doesn't have it yet. Maine officials reclaimed it after the sale. The case is currently in state court.
Mr. Klos, a Pennsylvania collector of Revolutionary War documents and artifacts, has put together an exhibit that is touring the US. He wanted the copy of the Declaration of Independence as its centerpiece.
"Many of these historic documents that are found are put away so people are not able to enjoy them," he says. "The great thing about this exhibit is you don't have to come back east to see them."
The fact that the federal government and states didn't maintain records in any official manner for many years is a major problem, historians say. The National Archives wasn't created until 1934.
"There weren't the kind of state archives and museums that exist today," says Mr. Kaller. "All of the great museum collections were started as private collections, including the Library of Congress" - originally Thomas Jefferson's private collection.
There is always plenty of interest when early copies are found.
"Every so often a copy turns up somewhere, and each one has its own history as to how it wound up in private hands," says Milton Gustafson, a senior archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Md.
Such was the case with the 16th Dunlap copy. It was discovered on the dusty shelves of Leary's Book Store in Philadelphia in 1968, and became the first copy ever auctioned. Two Texas businessmen bought it for $404,000 and gave it to the city of Dallas. Permanently on display at the Dallas Public Library, it is the only copy of the Declaration of Independence west of the Mississippi.
The 25th Dunlap copy that sold last week was discovered in 1989, tucked into the back of a tattered painting that was sold for $4 at a flea market in Adamstown, Pa. The amateur collector sold it at auction in 1991 for a record $2.42 million.
Mr. Lear, one of the new owners, said he plans to send it around the country in a "theatrical event that will be unashamedly patriotic."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society