America’s Declaration of Independence Goes Public

Immediately after the delegates approved the Declaration on the morning of July 4, they sent a copy of it to John Dunlap, publisher of the Pennsylvania Packet, asking him to print two hundred copies as a single-page broadside to be sent to the various legislatures, conventions and revolutionary committees in order that “it be proclaimed in each of the United States.” As the document was being printed, John Hancock wrote to each of the states asking them to take the steps necessary to have the document “proclaimed in your Colony in such Way & Manner as you shall judge best.” He added that “the important Consequences resulting to the American States from this Declaration of independence will naturally suggest the Propriety of proclaiming it in such a Mode as that the People may be universally informed of it.”

Although historians have had differing opinions on whether Jefferson had consciously written the Declaration in a style that would facilitate its being read aloud to large public gatherings, its elegance and relative brevity—at only 1,337 words it could just fit on a single printed page—made its distribution and public reading much easier. There is some evidence that an unofficial copy of the document was read near the Pennsylvania State House on the evening of July 4, but the official readings of the Declaration began on July 8, not only in Philadelphia, but also in Easton, Pennsylvania and in Trenton, New Jersey. The July 8th Philadelphia reading was a dramatic affair indeed. It began with the Committees of Safety and of Inspection—both of them committees that had been in the radical vanguard of Pennsylvania’s internal revolution—marching to the State House Yard. .

There, John Nixon, a lieutenant colonel commanding a Philadelphia battalion and a member of the radical Philadelphia Committee of Safety, had the honor of being the first person to read aloud the Declaration on an official occasion. His reading was greeted with “general applause and heart-felt satisfaction” by the “very large number of the inhabitants of the City and County” assembled there. John Adams, describing the event to Maryland’s Samuel Chase, reported, “The Battallions paraded on the common, and gave Us the Feu de Joy, notwithstanding the Scarcity of Powder. The Bells rung all Day, and almost all night.”
The Pennsylvania Evening Post was apparently the first newspaper to publish the Declaration, on Saturday, July 6. But from that time forward, the news spread quickly, both in print and by word of mouth. Perhaps the most dramatic unveiling of America’s call for independence came in New York City, on July 9, when General George Washington ordered officers of his Continental Army to engage in public readings of the Declaration to their troops, with the British “constantly in view.” Washington believed that such readings would “serve as a free incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage, . . . knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms. And that he is now in the service of a State, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest Honors of a free Country.” The ceremonies in New York were not confined to dignified public readings. That same evening a mob in the city toppled an equestrian statue of George III, cutting off the head. According to one observer, “the lead from which this monument was made is to be run into bullets, to assimilate with the brain of our infatuated adversaries.” And, in fact, the patriot army did make good use of the 4,000 pounds of lead in the statue, melting it down to make 42,000 musket bullets.

However joyous the New York celebration of the symbolic demise of George III may have been, General Washington, looking out onto New York harbor at the ever increasing number of British warships anchored there, realized that the battle had only begun. By mid-August Washington’s army of only a little over 10,000 militiamen and a virtually nonexistent patriot navy found themselves facing a fleet of seventy British warships and over 32,000 troops. By mid-September the British had occupied all of New York City, with Washington’s army fleeing north of the city. A year later, the British army marched unopposed into Philadelphia, occupying the city and causing members of the Continental Congress to scurry westward, first to a temporary capital in Lancaster and a few weeks later to York, Pennsylvania. America’s citizens, their political leaders and, especially, a beleaguered continental army were realizing just how daunting their commitment of their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor was.


The Main Players

The Turning Point

The British Respond and
Benjamin Franklin Pays the Price

George Washington: Commander-in-Chief

America’s Declaration of Independence
Goes Public

© Richard Beeman, 2011. All Rights Reserved. Web site design Margraffix.