It took a full month for news of the Declaration of Independence to spread throughout the 13 colonies-turned-United States. That means that almost every day for a month, new communities were learning about the Declaration and celebrating accordingly. In this month's research highlight, we take a glimpse into local proclamations and celebrations of independence in the summer of 1776, and how those initial festivities still influence our Fourth of July festivities today.
How did the Founding Fathers think the Declaration of Independence should be celebrated? Let's begin with "Atlas of Independence" John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams written on July 3rd: "I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." Ignore for a moment the fact that Adams was talking about celebrating the 2nd of July, not the 4th. His vision of parades, games, bells, bonfires, and illuminations is an apt description of many Fourth of July events across the country. Adams foresaw endless years of celebration, assuming that by signing the Declaration of Independence he wasn't also signing his death warrant: "Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."
This is a list of newspaper articles and letters describing public readings of the Declaration of Independence, and the ensuing celebrations. In some instances these proclamations occurred as soon as the Declaration of Independence was received, and in others, the readings were planned, symbolic events. For the most part, these celebrations match with what Adams envisioned for his own generation and for posterity. For the most part, these celebrations were civil, orderly, and a blend of celebratory and solemn. Certain towns celebrated in a more raucous or rebellious manner than Adams probably would have preferred; in fact, he gives a curmudgeonly review of the festivities in Philadelphia on July 8th (see below). Enjoy these accounts of toasts, cannons, applause, and symbolic vandalism!
July 8: Philadelphia, PA
"Yesterday, at twelve o'clock, INDEPENDANCY was declared at the State-House in this city, in the presence of many thousand spectators, who testified their approbation of it by repeated acclamantions of joy." - Pennsylvania Evening Post, July 9, 1776
"On Monday last the Committee of Safety, and Committee of Inspection, went in procession to the State-House, where the Declaration of the Independency of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA was read to a very large number of the inhabitants of this city and county, which was received with general applause and heart-felt satisfaction—And in the evening our late King's coat of arms was brought from the Hall, in the State-House, where the said King's Courts were formerly held, and burned amidst the acclamations of a croud of spectators." - Dunlap's Maryland Gazette, July 16, 1776
"The Declaration was yesterday published and proclaimed from that awful Stage, in the State house Yard, by whom do you think? By the Committee of Safety,! the Committee of Inspection, and a great Crowd of people. Three cheers rended the Welkin. 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. Even the Chimers, Chimed away. The Election for the City was carried on amidst this Lurry, with the Utmost Decency and order." - Letter from John Adams to Samuel Chase, July 9, 1776
July 8: Easton, PA
"This day the DECLARATION of INDEPENDANCY was received here, and proclaimed in the following order: The Colonel and all other field officers of the first battalion repaired to the courthouse, the light infantry company marching there with drums beating, fifes playing, and the standard (the device for which is the thirteen United Colonies) which was ordered to be displayed, and after that the Declaration was read aloud to a great number of spectators, who gave their hearty assent with three loud huzzas, and cried out MAY GOD LONG PRESERVE and UNITE the FREE and INDEPENDANT STATES of AMERICA." - Pennsylvania Evening Post, July 11, 1776
July 8: Trenton, NJ
"The declaration of Independence was this day proclaimed here, together with the new constitution of the colony of late, established, and the resolve of the Provincial Congress for continuing the administration of justice during the interim. The members of the Provincial Congress, the gentlemen of the Committee, the officers and privates of the Militia under arms and a large concourse of the inhabitants attended on this great and solemn occasion. The declaration and other proceedings were received with loud acclamations." - Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet, July 15, 1776
July 9: Princeton, NJ
"Last night Nassau-Hall was grandly illuminated, and INDEPENDANCY proclaimed under a triple volley of musketry, and universal acclamation for the prosperity of the UNITED STATES. The ceremony was conducted with the greatest decorum." - Extract of a Letter, Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet, July 15, 1776
July 9-10: New York, NY
"On Wednesday last, the Declaration of Independance was read at the head of each brigade of the Continental army, posted at and near New-York, and every where received with loud huzzas, and the utmost demonstrations of joy. The same evening the equestrian statue of George III. which Tory pride and folly raised in the year 1770, was, by the sons of freedom, laid prostrate in the dirt, the just desert of an ungrateful tyrant! The lead wherewith this monument was made, is to be run into bullets, to assimilate with the brain of our infatuated adversaries, who, to gain a pepper corn, have lost an empire.*—'Quos Deus vult perdere, prus dementat.' A gentleman, who was present at this ominous fall of leaden Majesty, looking back to the original's hopeful beginning, pertinently exclaimed, in the language of the Angle [sic] to Lucifer, 'If thou be'st he! But ah, how fallen! How chang'd!' *Lord Clare in the House of Commons, declared that a pepper corn, in acknowledgement of Britain's right to tax America, was of more importance than millions without it." - Pennsylvania Evening Post, July 13, 1776
"THE Day is come, and I rejoice that the Knot is cut, and INDEPENDENCY proclaimed by the Continental Congress.—Last Evening it was read to the Army here, and three Cheers proclaimed the Joy of every Heart in the Camp, and this Morning the IMAGE of the BEAST was thrown down, and his Head severed from his Body; not let George look to it, for he that sheweth no Mercy shall have no Mercy shewn to him!" - Extract of a Letter, Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser, July 17, 1776
July 18: Portsmouth, NH
"The Day before yesterday (pursuant to an order from the Great and General Court of this colony) the Independent Company under Col. SHERBURNE, and the Light-Infantry Company under Col. LANGDON were drawn up on the parade, in their uniforms, when the Declaration of Independence, from the grand CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, was read, in the hearing of a numerous and respectable auditory; the pleasing countenances of the many Patriots present, spoke a hearty concurrence in this interesting measure, which was confirm'd by three Huzzas, and all conducted in peace and good order." - Freeman's Journal, or New-Hampshire Gazette, July 20, 1776
July 18: Boston, MA
"Thursday last pursuant to the Orders of the honorable Council, was proclaimed from the Balcony of the State House in this Town, the DECLARATION of the AMERICAN CONGRESS, absolving the United Colonies from their Allegiance to the British Crown, and declaring them FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES. There were present on the Occasion, in the Council Chamber, the Committee of Council, a Number of the honorable House of Representatives, the Magistrates, Ministers, Selectmen, and other Gentlemen of Boston and the neighboring Towns; also the Commission Officers of the Continental Regiments stationed here, and other Officers. Two of those Regiments were under Arms in King-street, formed into three Lines on the North Side of the Street and in thirteen Divisions; and a Detachment from the Massachusetts Regiment of Artillery, with two Pieces of Cannon was on their Right Wing. At One o'clock the Declaration was proclaimed by Colonel Thomas Crafts, which was received with great Joy, expressed by three Huzzas from a great Concourse of People assembled on the Occasion. After which, on a Signal given, Thirteen Pieces of Cannon were fired at the Fort on Fort-Hill, the Forts at Dorchester Neck, the Castle, Nantasket, and Point Alderton, likewise discharged their Cannon: Then the Detachment of Artillery fired their Cannon thirteen Times, which was followed by the two Regiments giving their Fire from the thirteen Divisions in Succession. These Firings corresponded to the number of the American States United. The Ceremony was closed with a proper Collation to the Gentlemen in the Council Chamber; during which, the following Toasts were given by the President of the Council, and heartily pledged by the Company, viz.
Prosperity and Perpetuity to the United States of America.
The American Congress.
The General Court of the State of Massachusetts Bay.
General WASHINGTON, and Success to the Arms of the United States.
The downfall of Tyrants and Tyranny.
The universal Prevalence of Civil and Religious Liberty.
The Friends of the United States in all Quarters of the Globe.
The Bells of the Town were rung on the Occasion; and undissembled Festivity cheer'd and brighten'd every Face. On the same Evening the King's Arms, and every sign with any Resemblance of it, whether Lion and Crown, Pestle and Mortar and Crown, Heart and Crown, &c. together with every Sign that belonged to a Tory was taken down, and the latter made a general Conflagration of in King-Street." - New-England Chronicle, July 25, 1776
"Last Thursday after hearing a very Good Sermon I went with the Multitude into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for independance read and proclamed. Some Field Pieces with the Train were brought there, the troops appeard under Arms and all the inhabitants assembled there (the small pox prevented many thousand from the Country). When Col. Crafts read from the Belcona of the State House the Proclamation, great attention was given to every word. As soon as he ended, the cry from the Belcona, was God Save our American States and then 3 cheers which rended the air, the Bells rang, the privateers fired, the forts and Batteries, the cannon were discharged, the platoons followed and every face appeared joyful. Mr Bowdoin then gave a Sentiment, Stability and perpetuity to American independance. After dinner the kings arms were taken down from the State House and every vestige of him from every place in which it appeard and burnt in King Street. Thus ends royal Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen." - Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, July 21, 1776
July 18: Watertown, MA
"On the same Day a Number of the Members of the Council (who were prevented attending the Ceremony at Boston, on account of the Small Pox being there) together with those of the Hon. House of Representatives who were in Town, and a Number of other Gentlemen assembled at the Council Chamber, in this Town, where the said Declaration was also Proclaimed by the Secretary, from one of the Windows; after which the Gentlemen present partook of a decent Collation prepared on the Occasion and drank a Number of constitutional Toasts, and then retired. ... The King's Arms, in this Town, was on Saturday last [July 20], also defaced." - Boston Gazette and Country Journal, July 22, 1776
July 20: Newport, RI
"Last Saturday, the Hon. General Assembly of this STATE being then sitting at the State house in this town, at 12 o'clock the brigade stationed here under the command of the Colonels William Richmond & Christopher Lippitt, Esqrs. marched from Head-quarters, and drew up in two columns on each side the Parade before the State house door; His Honor the Governor and Members of Assembly then marched through and recieved the compliments of the brigade; after which the Secretary read at the head of the brigade a resolve of the Assembly, concurring with the Congress in the Declaration of Independence; the Declaration itself was then read; next 13 cannon were discharged at fort Liberty; the brigade then drew up and fired in THIRTEEN divisions, from east to west, agreeable to the number and situation of the United States. The Declaration was received with joy and applause by all ranks. The whole was conducted with great solemnity and decorum." - Newport Mercury, July 22, 1776
July 22: Worcester, MA
"On Monday last a number of patriotic gentlemen of this town, animated with a love of their country, and to shew their approbation of the measures lately taken by the Grand Council of America, assembled on the greeen near the liberty pole, where after having displayed the colors of the Thirteen Confederate Colonies of America, the bells were set a ringing and the drums a beating: After which, the Declaration of Independency of the United States was read to a large and respectable body (among whom were the Select-men and Committee of Correspondence) assembed on the occasion, who testified their approbation by repeated huzzas, firing of musketry and cannon, bonfires, and other demonstrations of joy.—When the arms of that Tyrant in Britain, George the III. of execrable memory, which in former reigns decorated, but of late disgraced the Court-House in this town, were committed to the flames and consumed to ashes; after which a select company of the Sons of Freedom, repaired to the Tavern, lately known by the sign of the King's Arms, which odious signature of despotism was taken down by order of the people, which was chearfully complied with by the Innkeeper, where the following toasts were drank---and the Evening spent with joy, on the commencement of the happy aera.
1. Prosperity and perpetuity to the United States of America.
2. The President of the Grand Council of America.
3. The Grand Council of America.
4. His Excellency General Washington
5. All the Generals in the American Army.
6. Commodore Hopkins.
7. The Officers and Soldiers in the American Army.
8. The Officers and Seamen in the American Navy.
9. The Patriots of America.
10. Every Friend of America.
11. George rejected and Liberty protected.
12. Success to the American Arms.
13. Sore Eyes to all Tories, and a Chesnut Burr for an Eye Stone.
14. Perpetual itching without the benefit of scratching to the Enemies of America.
15. The Council and Representatives of the State of Massachusetts-Bay.
16. The Officers and Soldiers in the Massachusetts service.
17. The Memory of the brave General Warren.
18. The memory of the magnanimous General Montgomery.
19. Speedy redemption to all the Officers and Soldiers who are now Prisoners of war among our Enemies.
20. The State of Massachusetts-Bay.
21. The town of Boston.
22. The Select-men and Committees of Correspondence for the town of Worcester.
23. May the Enemies of America be laid at her feet.
24. May the Freedom and Independency of America endure till the sun grows dim with age, and this earth returns to Chaos.
The greatest decency and good order, was observed, and at suitable time each man returned to his respective home." - The Massachusetts Spy or, American Oracle of Liberty, July 24, 1776
July 22: Huntington, NY
"Yesterday the Freedom and Independency of the Thirteen United Colonies, was with beat of drum, proclaimed at the several places of parade, by reading the Declaration of the General Congress, together with the Resolutions of our Provincial Convention thereupon; which were approved and applauded by the animated shouts of the people, who were present from all the distant quarters of this district. After which, the flag which used to wave on Liberty-pole, having Liberty on one side, and George III. on the other, underwent a reform, i.e. the Union was cut off, and the letters GEORGE III. were discarded, being publicly ripped off; and then an effigy of the Personage, represented by those letters, being hastily fabricated out of base materials, with its face black, like Dunmore's Virginia regiment, its head adorned with a wooden crown, and its head stuck full of feathers, like Carleton and Johnson's Savages, and its body wrapped in the Union, instead of a blanket or robe of state, and lined with gun-powder, which the original seems to be found of.—The whole, together with the letters above mentioned, was hung on a gallows, exploded and burnt to ashes. In the evening the Committee of this town, with a large number of the principal inhabitants sat round the genial board, and drank 13 patriotic toasts, among which were:
The free and independent States of America;
The General Congress;
The Conventions of the 13 States:
Our principal military Commanders, and success and enlargement to the American Navy:
Nor was the Memory of our late brave heroes, who have gloriously lost their lives in the cause of liberty, and their Country, forgotten." - The New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser, August 8, 1776
July 23: East Greenwich, RI
"ON Tuesday last the Kentish guards, commanded by Col. Richard Fry, appeared in their uniforms; about 12 o'clock they drew up on the parade before the State-House, when the Declaration of the General Congress, declaring these Colonies Free and Independent States, was read; likewise a resolve of the Assembly concurring with the same; which was announced by a discharge of thirteen cannon at Fort Daniel; next the guards fired thirteen follies; this was followed by three huzza's from a numerous body of inhabitants; they then repair'd to Arnold's Hall, where, after partaking of a very decent collation, the following patriotic toasts were drank:
1. The Thirteen United States of America.
2. The General Congress of the American States.
3. General Washington.
4. The American army.
5. Augmentation of the American navy.
6. In memory of those immortal heroes who have fallen in the American cause.
7. May a happy rule of government be established in the State of Rhode-Island.
8. American manufactures.
9. Free trade with all the world.
10. May true patriotism warm the breast of every American.
11. May the independency of the American States be firmly established, and a speedy peace take place.
12. May Liberty expand her sacred wings, and in glorious effort diffuse her influence o'er and o'er the globe." - Letter to the Printer, Newport Mercury, July 29, 1776
July 25: Williamsburg, VA
"Yesterday afternoon, agreeable to an order of the Hon. Privy Council, the DECLARATION of INDEPENDENCE was solemnly proclaimed at the Capitol, the Courthouse, and the Palace, amidst the acclamations of the people, accompanied by firing of cannon and musketry, the several regiments of continental troops having been paraded on that solemnity." - Virginia Gazette, July 26, 1776
"THURSDAY the 25th instant the DECLARATION of INDEPENDENCE of the UNITED COLONIES was proclaimed here, and received with universal applause, under a discharge of cannon, firing of small arms, illuminations in the evening, &c. &c." - Virginia Gazette, July 27, 1776
July 25: Providence, RI
"Thursday last, at Eleven o'Clock in the Forenoon, his Honor the Governor, attended by such Members of the Upper and Lower Houses of Assembly as were in Town, and a Number of the Inhabitants went in Procession to the State-House, escorted by the Cadet and Light-Infantry Companies, were at Twelve o'Clock was read the Act of Assembly concurring with the Most Honorbale General Congress in their Declaration of INDEPENDENCE; the Declaration was also read, at the Conclusion of which 13 Vollies were fired by the Cadets and Light-Infantry; the Artillery Company next fired 13 Cannon, and a like Number of new Cannon (cast at Hope-Furnace) were discharged at the Great Bridge; the Ships Alfred and Columbus likewise fired 13 Guns each, in Honor of the Day.—At Two o'Clock his Honor the Governor, attended and escorted as above, proceeded to Hacker's Hall, where an elegant Entertainment was provided on the Occasion; after Dinner the following Toasts were drank, viz.
1. The 13 free and independent States of America.
2. The Most Honorable the General Congress.
3. The Army and Navy of the United States.
4. The State of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations.
5. The Commerce of the United States.
6. Liberty to those who have Spirit to assert it.
7. The Friends of the United States in every Part of the Earth.
8. General Washington.
9. The Officers of the American Army and Navy.
10. May the Crowns of Tyrants by Crowns of Thorns.
11. The Memory of the brave Officers and Men who have fallen in Defence of American Liberty.
12. May the Constitution of each separate State have for its Object the Preservation of the civil and religious Rights of Mankind.
13. May the Union of the States be established in Justice and mutual Confidence, and be as permanent as the Pillars of Nature.
The Artillery Company, and Number of other Gentlemen, dined the same Day at Lindsey's Tavern, when the following Toasts were drank:
1. The free and independent States of America.
2. The General Congress of the American States.
3. The Honorable John Hancock, Esq;
4. His Excellency General Washington.
5. His Excellency General Lee.
6. The brave Carolinians.
7. Success to General Gates and the Northern Army.
8. May the Subtilty of the American Standard destroy the Ferocity of the British Lion.
9. The State of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations.
10. The Honorable Governor Cooke.
11. May the independent States of America for ever be an Asylum for Liberty.
12. The American Army and Navy.
13. The Providence independent Companies.
The whole was conducted with great Order and Decency, and the Declaration received with every Mark of Applause.--Towards Evening the King of Great-Britain's Coat of Arms was taken from a late public Office, as was also the Sign from the Crown Coffee-House, and burnt." - Providence Gazette, July 27, 1776
July 28: Ticonderoga, NY
"We hear from Ticonderoga, that on the 28th of July, immediately after divine worship, the Declaration of Independance was read by Col. St. Clair, and having said, 'God save the Free Independant States of America!' the army manifested their joy with three cheers. It was remarkably pleasing to see the spirits of the soldiers so raised after all their calamities; the language of every man's countenance was, Now we are a people! we have a name among the states of this world." - Pennsylvania Evening Post, August 15, 1776
July 29: Baltimore, MD
"Yesterday, by order of the Committee of this Town, the DECLARATION of the INDEPENDENCY of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA was read at the Court-House to a numerous and respectable body of Militia and the company of Artillery, and other principal inhabitants of this town and country, which was received with general applause and heart felt satisfaction: And at night the town was illuminated, and, at same time, the Effigy of our late King was carted through the town and committed to the flames amidst the acclamations of many hundreds.—The just reward of a Tyrant." - Dunlap's Maryland Gazette, July 30, 1776
August 5: Richmond, VA
"On Monday last, being court day, the Declaration of Independence was publicly proclaimed in the town of Richmond, before a large concourse of respectable freeholders of Henrico county, and upwards of 200 of the militia, who assembled on that grand occasion. It was received with universal shouts of joy, and re-echoed by three vollies of small arms, The same evening the town was illuminated, and the members of the committee held a club, when many patriotic toasts were drank. Although there were near 1000 people present, the whole was conducted with the utmost decorum, and the satisfaction visible in every countenance sufficiently evinces their determination to support it with their lives and fortunes." - Virginia Gazette, August 10, 1776
August 5: Charleston, SC
"On Monday last week, the DECLARATION of INDEPENDENCE was proclaimed here, amidst the acclamations of a vast concourse of people." - Pennsylvania Journal, September 18, 1776
Note: This list is by no means comprehensive. Sources for other public readings in this period can be suggested in the comments below to be corroborated and added.
By Emily Sneff