April Highlight: The Massachusetts Spy as a Case Study

Research HighlightsOne of our biggest projects in development is the creation of a database containing all known print and manuscript editions of the Declaration of Independence, from the first printings in 1776 through the 1820s. Why assemble this database? Because there is a rich and diverse textual tradition in the print and manuscript history of the Declaration. Punctuation, capitalization, and spelling differ in almost every edition, and anomalies (added, deleted, or changed words) enter the tradition at various points. Even the word count of the text of the Declaration differs from one edition to the next. For more, see our Which Version is This, and Why Does It Matter? resource.

In this month's Research Highlight, we present a case study on the diverse textual tradition. Using the Massachusetts Spy newspaper printing of July 17, 1776, let's dive into the process of analyzing each edition of the Declaration of Independence.

Why the Spy?

The Massachusetts Spy was established by printer Isaiah Thomas in 1770. By the summer of 1776, it was printed in Worcester, Massachusetts by Daniel Stearns and William Bigelow. Thomas was still an active printer and still involved in the newspaper; the July 17th issue includes a repeated advertisement requesting payment from subscribers, signed "ISAIAH THOMAS." He had simply turned over the printing of the newspaper to Stearns and Bigelow. The July 10th issue of the Massachusetts Spy gives evidence that a courier reached Massachusetts with news of independence before the actual text of the Declaration, in the form of a short announcement on the third page: "It is reported that the Honorable Continental Congress have declared the American Colonies INDEPENDENT of that Monster of imperious domination and cruelty—Great-Britain! Which we hope is true."

The text of the Declaration of Independence was front page news on July 17th, printed in three columns and sharing the page with the Spy's fantastic masthead (engraved by Paul Revere) and an announcement of a dissolved apothecary business partnership. We have chosen the Massachusetts Spy for this case study because it has an unusually high number of anomalies within the text, which might seem unexpected from a printing firm as well-known as Thomas's. It serves as a helpful example to demonstrate just how different one edition of the Declaration of Independence can be from another, and why close reading is a necessary if arduous part of this project.

Title and Signature

Like most printings of the Declaration of Independence produced in July and August 1776, the Massachusetts Spy uses the following title: "In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. A DECLARATION By the R[EPRESENTATIVES] of the UNITED STATES [OF] AMERICA, In G[ENERAL] C[ONGRESS] assembled." (as you can see, we use brackets to indicate the use of small caps). On July 19, the Continental Congress resolved that the title should be styled as "The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America"; however, that title wasn't used in practice until the engrossed parchment was created, and no printings created in 1776 used the "unanimous" styling. And, more importantly, this printing in Worcester came two days before the July 19th resolution in Philadelphia.

The signature used in the Massachusetts Spy printing also resembles most other printings from the summer of 1776: "Signed by order and in behalf of the C[ONGRESS]. JOHN HANCOCK, President. Attest, C[HARLES] T[HOMPSON], Sec'ry." These are the only two names to appear as "signatures" to the Declaration until the Goddard broadside, which was printed in January 1777 and was the first to include the names of (almost) all the signers.


The first thing you might notice about this printing is the ornate "W" at the beginning of the first sentence. It was common practice in both newspaper and broadside printings of the Declaration to enlarge this first letter, though this initial stands out as particularly ornate.

The Massachusetts Spy printing has a relatively low percentage of capitalized words. Not counting words at the beginning of sentences, this printing has just 28 capitalized words (including words in small caps and all caps). Out of a total word count of 1319 (more on that number below), that means Stearns and Bigelow capitalized just over 2% of the words in the Declaration of Independence. By comparison, Benjamin Towne's Pennsylvania Evening Post, the first newspaper printing, capitalized 3.25% of the words in the text, and John Dunlap's broadside capitalized just over 25% of the words. The words that are capitalized in the Massachusetts Spy include proper nouns (God, Great Britain, English, Indian, British), groups (Colonies, Representatives, Sates [sic]), and other words that warrant more attention (Prince, Assembled, Crown, United States of America).

Massachusetts Spy, with Capitalized Letters Highlighted
Click image to enlarge


Most of the printings of the Declaration of Independence produced in July and August 1776 are textual descendants of the Dunlap broadside. In the case of the Massachusetts Spy, the printers used the same punctuation as Dunlap in 187 instances within the text. Where the punctuation differs from the Dunlap, we can use those differences to connect this printing to other printings. For example, in the famous phrase of the second sentence, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", Stearns and Bigelow punctuated happiness as "happiness—"; Dunlap's broadside punctuated as "Happiness—-". Both printings use an em-dash, but Dunlap uses an additional dash. Other printings from July 1776 that punctuate as "happiness—" include Dunlap's newspapers (Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser and Dunlap's Maryland Gazette; or, the Baltimore General Advertiser), and several other Philadelphia newspapers (The Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly AdvertiserThe Pennsylvania Gazette, and The Pennsylvania Ledger Or the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New-Jersey Weekly Advertiser), as well as The Maryland Gazette and The Connecticut Gazette; and the Universal Intelligencer). 

In other instances, the Massachusetts Spy has punctuation in places that not only don't make sense, but also don't appear in any printings produced before July 17th (the print date). A good example is in the sixth grievance, which begins, "He has refused for a long time". Compare the Dunlap broadside version of this grievance to the Spy's, and see if you can spot the anomaly:

Dunlap broadside: He has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.

Massachusetts Spy: He has refused for a long time, after such, dissolution, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of an annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

The comma after "such" was seemingly added by Stearns and Bigelow, without much rhyme or reason. 

Massachusetts Spy, with Punctuation Highlighted
Click image to enlarge

Speaking of anomalies, it's time to explore the most interesting part of the Massachusetts Spy's version of the Declaration of Independence. 


In our analysis of different versions of the Declaration of Independence, we count words that are added, deleted, changed, or misspelled as anomalies. Within misspellings, we include words made plural or singular (for example, dissolution rather than dissolutions) as well as words spelled differently. It is important to note that the Dunlap broadside is our source text for spelling, which was still relatively transient in 1776. So, words such as "shewn", "harrass", and "compleat" do not count as misspellings, because they are spelled that way in the Dunlap broadside. 

The Massachusetts Spy printing has 27 anomalies, which is an astonishingly high number. In the sixth grievance (above), you may have noticed these anomalies:

Misspelled: dissolutions (dissolution)
Added: incapable of an annihilation

Some anomalies are obvious and, frankly, have a profound impact on the reader's interpretation of the text. The final paragraph has a notable misspelling, "SATES" instead of "STATES". The second sentence has a notable word change that turns "We hold these truths to be self-evident" into "We hold these truths to us self-evident". The sentence that typically reads "In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms" is missing "for redress". An important phrase about "these usurpations" has been changed to "their usurpation".

Some anomalies are not unique to Stearns and Bigelow's printing. A common word addition in the penultimate sentence changes "in the name, and by authority of the good people" into "in the name, and by the authority of the good people". External from the text, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson's name is frequently misspelled, as it is in this example.

Massachusetts Spy, Annotated with Anomalies
Click image to enlarge

Word Count

The text of the Declaration in the Dunlap broadside (discounting the title and signature) amounts to 1320 words. The Massachusetts Spy has 1319 words. How do we get to this number? Five deleted words (the, for redress, have, to), three added words (a, an, the), and one un-hyphenated instance of "Great Britain".

Stay tuned for more on our database in-progress. And check our work! If you notice an anomaly or instance of punctuation we missed in this analysis, leave a comment or email us.

Image of the July 17th issue of the Massachusetts Spy courtesy of Seth Kaller, Inc. For more information on this particular printing, visit their website.

By Emily Sneff

Last | Research Highlights | Next