A man in the background of history

Retired SHS teacher finds ancestor’s link to Declaration of Independence

Ray Erwin looks at a copy of the Declaration of Independence in a book about his ancestor and Revolutionary War figure Timothy Matlack. Erwin and others have researched Matlack’s life and learned that the Pennsylvania businessman and Free Quaker spent a month from July through August 1776 painstakingly handwriting the declaration on parchment from Thomas Jefferson’s notes. (Gazette staff photo by Erik Sandin)

Ray Erwin looks at a copy of the Declaration of Independence in a book about his ancestor and Revolutionary War figure Timothy Matlack. Erwin and others have researched Matlack’s life and learned that the Pennsylvania businessman and Free Quaker spent a month from July through August 1776 painstakingly handwriting the declaration on parchment from Thomas Jefferson’s notes. (Gazette staff photo by Erik Sandin)

History books tell us the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

But sometimes those books don’t tell the whole story.

For instance, retired Stillwater High School agriculture teacher Ray Erwin said history books usually don’t mention that what the Continental Congress approved more than 200 years ago were notes relating to the declaration.

It was a distant relative of Erwin who was tasked with taking those notes and “engrossing,” or writing, the Declaration of Independence on parchment, according to Erwin.

Erwin, who counts genealogy as one of his hobbies, said research he and others have done show that Timothy Matlack, the grandson of Erwin’s “great sixth grandfather,” William Matlack, wrote the Declaration of Independence on parchment on orders of the Continental Congress.

“Timothy Matlack did the handwriting on the official copy of the Declaration of Independence,” Erwin said. He added that Matlack, who was assistant secretary to the Continental Congress at the time, was given the job by Secretary of the Continental Congress Charles Thomson.

“It took Timothy Matlack from July 19 to Aug. 20 to do the job by hand. At which time, the 65 men who signed the Declaration of Independence affixed their signatures to the document,” Erwin said.

It was not an easy task for Matlack, according to Erwin. Matlack worked from the writings of founding father Thomas Jefferson, and by extension, Benjamin Franklin.

“All that was ready was Thomas Jefferson’s notes,” Erwin said. “All that existed were notes.”

Erwin said research shows the Third Continental Congress wanted the Declaration of Independence printed on parchment — made from sheep or lamb skin — to consider the document official.

A colonial printer named John Dunlop borrowed the notes Matlack worked from, set type by hand and printed an additional 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence, Erwin said.

“It was on oversized paper and about 200 were distributed,” Erwin said about Dunlop’s work. “Of the 200, about 25 are known to exist today. I’ve seen one of them. It cost about 8 million bucks.”

By the time Matlack finished writing the declaration on parchment in August 1776, other printers had copied the document. The Continental Congress sent six copies of the declaration to England’s King George, Erwin said.

Matlack’s fight for American independence did not end with writing the Declaration of Independence on parchment. Erwin said Matlack played another important role in the American Revolution by convincing Pennsylvania colonial leaders to approve the declaration, setting the stage for approval by the 12 other colonies.

“The Declaration of Independence went through terrible trials and tribulations in the 13 colonies,” Erwin said. “The colonists were English and did not want to cut their ties with the country. Tim Matlack fought for independence. It was hotly contested, and Pennsylvania was the leading state. If they had not approved the declaration, it would not have flied.”

Erwin said his research on Matlack, done both on the Internet and talking with others interested in Matlack’s life, shows Matlack was an educated Quaker, Philadelphia businessman and beer brewer, associate of Franklin and assisted in the creation of the Free Quakers after Matlack was kicked out of the Quakers.

“Education was highly regarded by the Quakers,” Erwin said. “But he liked horse racing, and he dealt with the common man. They (Quakers) kicked Timothy Matlack out. They didn’t like his business practices, they didn’t like his (interest in) horse racing.”

Erwin said Matlack assisted Franklin in creating the Free Quakers and was one of the secretaries of the philosophical society Franklin started that is now the American Philosophical Society.

“He rubbed elbows with Ben Franklin,” Erwin said.

Matlack also helped found the University of Pennsylvania, according to Erwin.

Despite Matlack’s accomplishments, Erwin said Matlack was not a wealthy man when he died in 1829. And while the Internet heavily covers Matlack, it was not until 1916 when Library of Congress historian Galliard Hunt definitively determined that Matlack was the Declaration of Independence engrosser.

“He did labor on it,” Erwin said about Matlack. “There’s a font of type created by his handwriting.”

Erwin said Matlack, like many colonists, had many talents during his adult life.
“That was normal in colonial America,” Erwin said.

But despite Matlack’s accomplishments, Erwin said his distant relative had another personality trait that might contribute to his being in the background of American history.

“He was largely a renegade,” Erwin said.

Contact Erik Sandin at erik.sandin@ecm-inc.com

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