The Books George Washington Saved from the British

As the British approached Philadelphia, patriots snuck books, containing an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, out of the city and hid them in the countryside. Washington saved them.

Matthew Schafer
8 min readMay 3, 2024

It was September 18, 1777. Alexander Hamilton hurried off a letter to John Hancock, then the president of the Continental Congress. He rushed it some forty miles to Philadelphia. It was a warning: “If Congress have not yet left Philadelphia, they ought to do it immediately.”

The same day, Congress fled the city. But this is the story about the flight of something else from Philadelphia that fall: fifty, unfinished copies of the second volume of the Journals of Congress — copies that contained an early printing of the Declaration of Independence.

The impromptu conspiracy to save the books was haphazard and the books’ recovery was delayed. But, ultimately, when, in January 1778, Washington received a tip as to their location, he sent a soldier to scour the countryside for the Journals. The soldier found them and brought them back to Washington who was camped during that fateful winter at Valley Forge.

The Journals of Congress

The Continental Congress was founded in 1774 as tensions with Britain rose. Anxious to inform the public about its proceedings and get public opinion on its side, the Congress authorized the printing of extracts of its work. But the first printers — the Bradfords — were too slow and ultimately couldn’t meet the demand.

Eventually, Robert Aitken, a Scotsman who gave Thomas Paine his first job, replaced the Bradfords. The Congress ordered Aitken to create annual volumes memorializing its work. It ordered more than 750.

Aitken was more than happy to play the lucrative role of government printer. In 1777, he began printing the Journals. He consolidated the first two years of the Congress (1774 & 1775) into the first volume. In the second volume, he printed the proceedings for 1776, when the Colonies declared war.

By late August, Aitken was advertising the arrival of the Journals in local newspapers. He told readers, “In the press, and in a few weeks will be published, volumes first and second of the elegant new edition of Journals of Congress.”

Presumably aware of Howe’s approaching army, Aitken assured readers that the volumes would be printed with “the utmost expedition.” Aitken was able to get the first volume off his presses and bound into the common paper boards of the time.

The second volume’s future was more precarious. Aitken completed about 500 copies of Congress’ order, and, like the first volume, they carry Aitken’s name and “Philadelphia” on their title page. (Many, it appears, would be destroyed when the British came.)

But it soon became clear that Aitken would not complete the entire run of the second volume. With Howe’s army approaching, Aitken began making other plans to ensure the survival of the unfinished copies of the Journal.

The Flight from Philadelphia

By mid-September, any hope of holding Philadelphia was lost. The Congress resolved that if forced to it would abandon Philadelphia for Lancaster to the west.

By September 16, John Adams said Philadelphia “seems to be asleep, or dead.” Opening up his diary that morning, he wrote, “From whence is our Deliverance to come? Or is it not to come? Is Philadelphia to be lost?”

No newspaper arrived at Adams’ stoop that same morning. Newspaper printer John Dunlap, the same printer who a year earlier printed the now-famous broadside of the Declaration of Independence, had already packed up his press and fled west to Lancaster.

Then, on September 18, Congress received Hamilton’s letter warning it to flee: “If Congress have not yet left Philadelphia, they ought to do it immediately.”

Before the members did though, they issued a flurry of orders. In one, the Congress ordered that all remaining printing presses in the city be evacuated and “removed to secure places in the country,” realizing as Dunlap had the importance of printing presses to the war.

The members then fled for Lancaster as planned, where they stayed briefly before moving farther west to York.

Some members, however, stayed in Philadelphia to do what they could to assist the war effort. James Lovell, a member from Massachusetts who oversaw the printing of the Journals, was one of them.

On September 22, he met up with Hamilton who was making one last run to Philadelphia to gather supplies for the army. With Hamilton’s help, Lovell commandeered some wagons, and Lovell headed for Aitken’s printshop. The idea was to help Aitken load up his press and move it out of the City.

What Lovell wasn’t expecting was that Aitken would refuse.

Smuggling the Journals to Lancaster

By the time Lovell arrived at Aitken’s shop with the wagons, Aitken was out of time to print any more pages.

It’s not clear why Aitken refused to leave. Lovell didn’t seem to understand either. What is clear though is that even if Aitken was staying put, the Journals were not. Apparently with Lovell’s help, Aitken loaded the 50 unfinished copies of the Journal and the plates themselves onto wagons.

Lovell, Aitken, or both then ordered that the copies be sent west to Lancaster care of Dunlap, who was setting one of his presses up there. Neither Aitken nor Lovell accompanied the Journals as they were rushed out of the city and into the countryside.

They did not even know where the Journals would ultimately end up. Over the intervening months, Lovell would be left to investigate whether their effort to save the Journals had succeeded. Eventually, he concluded that the Journals probably made it about ten miles out of Philadelphia where they were left to be hidden by a papermaker, Frederic Bicking.

A Search Party Sent from Valley Forge

Armed with that information, on December 31, Lovell wrote to Washington who was dug in with the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Lovell relayed that a “Course of Disappointments has attended the printing of the Journals of Congress.” Of the Journals, he said, “This Work [Aitken] has sent out of the city of Philadelphia, and buried.”

Lovell then conveyed the general area where he thought the Journals could be found and wrote, “I beg your Excellency to communicate these Circumstances to some active Pennsylvanian Officer, who, being acquainted with the Spot of Ground mentioned, will take a proper speedy Method of gaining the Journals & forwarding them to Lancaster or York.”

Apologizing for bothering Washington during one of the most precarious moments of the war, he added, “I am not insensible of the great Affairs which press your Excellency on every side; but, I really thought this Business of recovering the Journals was important enough.”

Washington, apparently, was convinced.

Washington dispatched a soldier familiar with the area where the Journals “were said to be deposited” so he could “make inquiry concerning them.” The soldier succeeded. He found the Journals “without difficulty.” The search for the plates “was not attended with equal Success.”

Washington’s Response to Lovell’s plea that he recover the Journals.

Dunlap Finishes the Journals

The Journals had been recovered and brought back to the chilly Valley Forge camp. But they were not safe and served little purpose in camp. Washington told Lovell that, as soon as he could, he would send them to York under the protection of military escort.

Lovell was relieved. On January 13, 1778, he wrote to Adams to tell him that Washington found the Journals. The unfinished papers, would be sent directly to York where Dunlap had a second press. A week later, he promised that the “Moment the Journals which are found shall reach York I will inclose one to you.”

The immediate problem was that the copies of the Journals had not made it out of Philadelphia unscathed. The last 100 pages had been destroyed. (Or, possibly, Aitken never completed them at all.) The plates were gone. Dunlap thus had to print the last pages and the index from the beginning — which he did.

The finished Journals likely did not start coming off the press in York until May. In early February, Lovell wrote to Adams that he hoped to have a copy on his way to him in Boston that month. But the Journal contains a notice from May 2, 1778 that the Congress had assigned Dunlap to print the book, meaning the final printing must have post-dated that.

Despite the delay, Lovell had succeeded in saving the Journal from the British. Ultimately, he also got a copy to Adams, which can be found in Adams’ library to this day. By September, Washington sent a copy of Dunlap’s York Journal to the Board of General Officers trying military offenses. The books were finally serving their purpose.

The Second Volume

The Book’s Battle Scars

The Journals ultimately distributed by Dunlap carry some scars that tell this story. Where Aitken’s last page (page 424) ends, Dunlap’s inking on his first page (page 425) is noticeably darker and clearer, showing where Aitken ends and Dunlap begins. Where the title page used to say “Philadelphia: Printed and Sold by R. Aitken,” the Lovell version read “York-Town [Pennsylvania] / Printed by John Dunlap.”

The second volume of the Journal would be the only one of the thirteen volumes that would carry the “York-Town” imprint. The British abandoned Philadelphia in June 1778, having gained no meaningful strategic advantage. By July, the Congress moved back to Philadelphia as did Dunlap and his presses.

Page 424 printed by Aitken in Philadelphia 1777; Page 425 printed by Dunlap in York in 1778.

Today, the Library of Congress holds a full eight of the original 50 York Journals. About a dozen other libraries hold copies too. A few change private hands at auction every so often. Those listings often mention that Aitken sent the unfinished copies to Dunlap in Lancaster to print.

But the details of the elaborate effort to save the Journals from the British had largely been lost to history. Lovell’s dogged insistence that the Journals be saved before the British arrived in Philadelphia. His enlisting the help of Hamilton. The uncertainty of the Journals’ fate in the countryside while the war raged. And, ultimately, the search that Washington sent out that cold winter in 1778 to bring the Journals back to Valley Forge.

That the Journals were rescued was in that moment, a small victory for the cause. This was no mere collaboration between printers. It was a mission to ensure that a vital piece of the country’s history would not be just another causality in the war.

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Matthew Schafer

Media Lawyer. Adjunct Professor/Mass Media Law at Fordham University School of Law. Twitter @MatthewSchafer