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Lee Benson
Collector Brent Ashworth poses with his pride and joy: a rare 1848 copy of the Declaration of Independence that you can see this week.

PROVO— America's birthday is Wednesday — we're turning 236! — and if you want to do it up right by gazing at the document that got it all started, you could book a flight to Washington, D.C., and check out the Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Or you could drive to the Crandall Printing Museum at 275 E. Center in Provo and see something almost as rare — and considerably more readable.

Both documents, by the way, are copies.

The original Declaration of Independence, the one drawn up in Philadelphia by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, and officially approved two days later on July 4, was lost somewhere between the printer and Independence Hall — the first instance of something slipping through the cracks at Congress (and no one taking responsibility).

It was no big deal, freedomwise, because the text of the original had already been reproduced and printed in newspapers throughout the newly liberated colonies. And later on, in August, the Congress produced a beautiful copy of the declaration on stretched animal skin that included the signatures of all 56 delegates (the original had been signed only by John Hancock and Charles Thompson, president and secretary of the Congress).

That's the famous document that Americans have known and loved ever since and that now resides permanently in the National Archives.

But it is barely readable, due to its age, abuse (for the first 20 years the document was hung in a window in the Patent Office facing direct sunlight), and, worst of all, an attempt in 1823 to make picture-perfect replicas.

This was in the days before copy machines, or, for that matter, photography, so when President James Monroe commissioned an engraving expert named William J. Stone to make a facsimile of the declaration, Stone unavoidably lifted off some of the ink in the process. The original was further destroyed by making a copy.

Or, in this case, 201 copies, which were distributed to the country's leading educational institutions, politicians, the Marquis de Lafayette and the three signers then still living: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Carroll.

Only one other official reproduction was authorized by the government. That was in 1848, when a man named Peter Force was allowed to make copies of Stone's copy. Force ended up making about 300 of these.

About 32 of the original Stone facsimiles are still known to exist, and about 75 of the Force replicas.

I bring this up because one of them is in Utah.

Noted Utah collector Brent Ashworth owns an authentic Peter Force copy.

He bought it in Boston in 1977 at Goodspeed's, a bookstore specializing in rare documents.

He'll never forget the day he walked into the store, taking a break from a business convention, looking for nothing in particular, and there it was, leaning haphazardly against the counter in an old warped mahogany frame.

He bought it for $150, spent more than that to have it shipped to Utah and hung it on the wall of his office, where it's remained ever since. (A Force "original" sells today for thousands).

On occasion, though, he takes it down and puts it on public display.

For the past four years, he's showed it off as part of Provo's Colonial Days, presenting it at Crandall's Museum on Center Street.

It will be there Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Wednesday, the Fourth of July, after the parade ends until 6 p.m.

Ashworth says he never tires of looking at what he calls "America's birth certificate."

Nor does he tire of sharing it.

"I never grew out of kindergarten," he says. "I just love show and tell."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.