That the People May be Universally Informed of It: Reactions to the Declaration of Independence, 1776.
by Tegan Kehoe
Two hundred and thirty-five years ago today, on July 4th, 1776, the United States of America was born. Or was it? Many ideas that inspired the founding of the country had been around for centuries, and the Revolutionary War would not end until 1783. The Continental Congress decided to approve the Declaration on July 2, leading John Adams to write, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” Today, of course, Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4, the day that Congress actually voted on and approved the document, and even at the time, people recognized it as a greatly symbolic occasion. All across the newly-declared country, people celebrated as the news was spread, and those celebrations, too, came over a period of time, so it could be said that America's first Fourth of July lasted for several weeks.
After the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock was responsible for distributing it. He sent a printed copy to each of the states and to General Washington. With it, Hancock sent a letter explaining that Congress had decided that declaring independence was their only real option. The letter also required the states and the military to determine ways to spread the news of the Declaration, “that the people may be universally informed of it.”
Each state came up with their own way of proclaiming independence. Pennsylvania sent copies by express rider to places where elections were about to be held. Virginia ordered each sheriff to give a public reading of the Declaration at the door of his courthouse. In Rhode Island, it was read at town meetings. Several states left it up to the towns to decide how to make the Declaration known, but passed on the order to make the news as public as possible. But many American people did not need government orders to spread the word. Many of the signers distributed copies to friends, family, and political colleagues before the public announcements were made. Additionally, the Declaration of Independence was published in over thirty newspapers within a month of its completion, often on the front page. In New York, printer John Holt gave the Declaration its own sheet within his newspaper, saying his customers would want to hang it in their homes. Printers also sold the Declaration as a broadside, which is a printing on one side of a sheet of paper like a poster or flier.
Both the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the rhetoric used to express them were very familiar to most American colonists by 1776. Many colonists could read, and they had been exposed to the Declaration's ideas over and over in the preceding years. Between 1750 and 1766, more than four hundred separate pamphlets about the controversy between Britain and its American colonies were published in the colonies. Many were stand-alone opinion essays, but some appeared as annual series, commemorating events such as the repeal of the Stamp Act. Pamphlets sold for about a shilling, so they were affordable enough to reach wide audiences. Newspapers were another way that Patriots (and Loyalists, those who sided with the Crown) spread their beliefs, and people who could not read often learned what was in the newspapers from friends or neighbors. Additionally, it was not at all uncommon for ministers to impart messages about liberty, rights, and even current events during church services. Between all of these media, colonists had no shortage of exposure to patriotic language and themes.
The rhetoric of the revolution drew upon the European Enlightenment, Greek and Roman writers, and English legal thought. Even grammar school students could reference the Classics, although their understanding was often superficial. Newspaper publishers and pamphleteers were very selective in the quotes they used, making well-known sources serve their purposes. In fact, the two sides, Patriot and Loyalist, had a similar repertoire, from the English law commentator William Blackstone to literary uses of the Roman statesman Cato the Younger.
All of this meant that at public readings, whether they were in churches, government buildings, or common greens, the people knew what they were listening to, and they reacted to it. While fireworks were not a part of the festivities in 1776, many people placed lit candles in all of their windows, and several celebrations included rifle salutes or bonfires. In Boston, the Declaration was read from the balcony of the Town House (now called the Old State House) to a crowd of people gathered on what was then called King street – that day, it was changed to State Street, and the name is still used. Originally, Sheriff William Greenleaf was scheduled to make the oration, but he was so quiet that Colonel Thomas Crafts had to assist with his booming voice. After the reading was complete, the people had a celebratory riot, including a bonfire in the middle of the street. The people tore down and burned any symbol of Great Britain they could find, from small wooden crowns used as ornaments to the lion and unicorn statues that had stood nearly eight feet tall atop the three-story building. Philadelphia also had a bonfire by their State House, but burned smaller symbols.
Perhaps the only city that can top Boston was Huntington, Long Island, where the people created an effigy of King George III and lined its cloak with gunpowder. The effigy was then exploded and burned. The people of Baltimore also made an effigy of King George III, but they burned it the conventional way, without explosives. Since the body of the Declaration is made up of a list of the king's abuses, with language like, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people,” it is no wonder that he was the target of symbolic destruction. In New York city, the people tore down a lead statue of the king mounted on a horse. It had been put up only six years earlier. One newspaper declared that the statue “laid prostrate in the dirt... the just deserts of an ungrateful tyrant!” and noted that the lead was going to be made into bullets, “to assimilate with the brains of our adversaries.”
Riotous celebrations of the Declaration of Independence took place all over the new country; however, a significant number of the celebrations were formal, decorous, and downright stately. Many of the more organized observances were those done by militias. On July 8, the reading for the New Jersey Provincial Congress and locally stationed troops took place in Trenton, New Jersey. Newspaper accounts described the event as a “great and solemn occasion,” and the people received the news with “loud acclamations” rather than fiery displays. Newport, Rhode Island also combined a civil reading with an event for the brigade stationed there, which included a round of thirteen cannon shots at Fort Liberty and gunshots in thirteen divisions. According to the newspapers, “The Declaration was received by joy and applause by all ranks. The whole was conducted with great solemnity and decorum.” Perhaps those who were involved in military celebration had a deeper understanding of the fact that the war was now likely to last much longer. When there was hope of reconciliation with Britain, there had been hope of a short war.
Some colonists, both Loyalists and moderate Patriots, felt that the Declaration of Independence was timed poorly or that it was too extreme. Many Loyalists also took it as a sign that they were no longer welcome in their home towns, especially if they lived in radical areas such as Boston, and some of them left for Canada or even for England. However, for many others, the Declaration of Independence was exciting, inspiring, and hopeful. As historian Bernard Bailyn put it, “By then Americans had come to think of themselves as a special category, uniquely placed by history to capitalize on, to complete and fulfill, the promise of man's existence.” In other words, many people truly believed in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and they believed, rightly or wrongly, that this new country could truly deliver these things to its citizens.
Tegan Kehoe is a history writer and museum and non-profit professional, whose blog “Cambridge Considered: the colorful history of Cambridge, MA can be found at http://www.cambridgeconsidered.blogspot.com
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, "Had a Declaration..." [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3 1776.
A shout-out to my readers in Ithaca, NY, where the fireworks display is always a day or two before the Fourth. Perhaps we're on to something – beyond just avoiding competition with bigger displays!
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 154.
Quoted in Maier 155.
Hazelton, John. The Declaration of Independence: Its History. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1906. Reprint: New York, Da Capo Press, 1970), 220-222.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enlarged Edition. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992), 8.
Hitchings, Sinclair and Catherine F. Hitchings. Theatre of Liberty: Boston's Old State House. (Boston: Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, 1975).
How the Declaration was Received. New York Times. July 4, 1871.
How the Declaration was Received. New York Times. July 4, 1871.
American or Constitutional Gazette: the Journal. Vol. I No. 6 July 23, 1776.
Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet, or The General Advertiser. Vol. V No. 247, July 15, 1776.
Pennsylvania Evening Post, Vol. II No. 239, August 1, 1776.
 Bailyn 20.