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Transcript of Publishing the Declaration of Independence

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Transcript of video presentation by Robin Shields

July 1776 was pivotal in the history of the United States and the history of democracy. The American Revolution was little more than a civil war. The Continental Army was outnumbered three to one by the British and their German mercenaries. The British Navy dominated the high seas, cutting off supplies and arms. America was seeking support both domestically and internationally. The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to draft a declaration of independence which would clearly state the reasons for the Revolution and hopefully garner desperately needed arms and ammunition and soldiers. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original draft which was revised in committee and by the whole Congress. It was printed as a broadside on July 4 and distributed to be read publicly throughout the colonies. To achieve even wider distribution, Congress ordered it to be printed in newspapers as well.

The Continental Congress saw the Declaration of Independence as a powerful tool. The support of nations like France, the Netherlands, and Poland was crucial. Declaring independence made it possible to take the Revolution out of the arena of civil war and put it directly on the international stage as a war for independence. The simplicity and eloquence of the Declaration of Independence immediately gained the attention of the world and has inspired democratic movements ever since. Getting the word out was a priority.

On the evening of July 4, 1776, John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, took the manuscript copy of the Declaration and printed it as a single-sheet broadside. It took a little longer for it to appear in newspapers.

Colonial printers held a unique position in the history of American printing. Printers in Great Britain had a legal monopoly on most printed material, such as the English-language Bible, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and all maps. American printers were limited to producing newspapers, almanacs, sermons, addresses, pamphlets, primers and other lesser items. To make ends meet, most colonial printers had other jobs. Many maintained book shops and dry-goods stores. A number of printers were also postmasters. Printers were by default editors, publishers, and distributors. Because they had to wear many hats, they had great influence in the colonies. One of their crowning achievements was the nationwide distribution of the Declaration of Independence. Each of its printings has something important to tell us about life in the United States at the time of the nation's birth.

Benjamin Towne, a Philadelphia printer located "in Front-street, near the London Coffee-House," was the first to print the Declaration in a newspaper. On July 6, 1776, The Pennsylvania Evening Post, which was published every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, carried the Declaration on the front page. At this time Towne was an ardent patriot. However, Towne was an opportunist and a turncoat. He switched sides several times during the war, depending on whether the British or the Americans were occupying Philadelphia at the time. By the end of the war he was viewed as a traitor. He lost most of his subscribers and advertisers. He started printing The Pennsylvania Evening Post every day, making it the first daily newspaper in the United States. By that time it was reduced to a single sheet and he hawked it himself on the street. He was not successful, and ceased publication in 1784.

On July 10, Mary Katherine Goddard devoted the front page of her newspaper, The Maryland Journal and The Baltimore Journal, to the Declaration. Mary Goddard was one of thirty woman printers in the colonies. Printing was one the few professions open to women at this time. Money was scarce throughout the Revolution. Mary's subscribers often paid in goods rather than cash. To raise cash, Mary opened a store adjacent to the print shop, selling the goods she received. She was the first woman in the American colonies to serve as postmaster, a position she filled for fourteen years. The prejudice at this time against women making a profit led to her dismissal as postmaster. She petitioned Congress and wrote George Washington appealing her dismissal, to no avail. She spent her remaining years running her own book shop.

The Pennsylvania Gazette was the most successful newspaper in colonial America. It owed its success to Benjamin Franklin, who wrested control of the paper from Samuel Keimer in 1729 and then used his influence as postmaster to increase its circulation and list of subscribers. Franklin introduced the editorial column, humor, and the first weather report--and the first cartoon, the famous drawing of a divided snake with the caption "Join or Die," which appeared in 1754 in response to the French and Indian massacres of settlers in Virginia and Pennsylvania. By 1776, the paper was owned and run by David Hall Jr., the son of Franklin's partner, David Hall Sr., and William Sellers. On July 10, 1776, they printed the Declaration of Independence on columns one and two. On column three are two of fourteen advertisements for rewards of the return of slaves and indentured servants. This traffic in human beings was a fact of life and big business in the colonies. Advertisements about the slaves for sale and runaways of all sorts--including slaves, apprentices, wives, indentured servants as well as deserters--was also a major source of revenue for colonial newspapers. This newspaper shows the world of radical inequalities from which the Declaration's affirmation that "all men are created equal" emerged.

The Pennsylvania Journal was the major competitor to The Pennsylvania Gazette. It was owned and run by William Bradford and his son Thomas. In 1754 he established the London Coffee-House, which served as the seat of the merchants' exchange in Philadelphia. The Bradfords were the official printers to the First Continental Congress. On July 10, 1776, he printed the Declaration of Independence on page one. He was a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia and fought bravely during the War. He was severely wounded at the Battle of Princeton and afterwards his health and business declined rapidly. His dying words to his children were, "Though I bequeath you no estate, I leave you in the enjoyment of liberty." He was the outstanding soldier-editor of the Revolution, and his career shows both the close connection between journalism and politics and how deeply personal the Revolutionary cause could be for some printers.

The Journal was a zealous advocate for the American Revolution. John Holt, the printer, showed his support in his imaginative masthead. The double coiled snake with its tail in its mouth proclaims on the body, "United Now Alive and Free, Firm on the basis Liberty shall stand, And thus supported, ever bless our land, Till Time becomes Eternity." The snake swallowing its tail is a symbol for eternity. Within the coils is a pillar standing on the Magna Carta surmounted by the cap of liberty. The pillar on each side is supported by six arms and hands, representing the colonies. On July 11, Holt devoted a whole page to the Declaration of Independence, using a large typeface and embellishing it with a border of printers’ decorations, the most elaborate printing of a government document up to this time.

The New York Packet began publication in January 1776, "in Water-Street, between the Coffee-House and the Old Slip." Again we have a newspaper adjacent to a coffee-house. The printer was Samuel Loudon, a young Irishman, who printed his newspaper on Thursday, so the earliest he could print the Declaration was on Thursday, July 11. The front page is devoted to a speech in the House of Lords by the Duke of Richmond. The Declaration does not appear until page two, column three.

At first I could not understand why this speech would be more important than the Declaration, but when you read the speech you find that there was a fierce debate in the House of Lords on the Revolution. The Duke of Richmond questions the ability of the British to finance such a war and worries about the world's reaction to Great Britain's destroying the farms, homes, and lives of colonials. He even mentions the trial of Ethan Allen and describes this patriot as the worst type of man but useful in that he can be traded for British prisoners of war. After reading this diatribe on the American Revolution, the reader comes to the Declaration of Independence. If the reader had any doubts about the need for independence, the Richmond speech would quickly change his mind. Reading the Declaration roused the reader to support and fight for freedom. This is a perfect piece of revolutionary propaganda.

James Humphreys Jr. was a Tory who had taken an oath of allegiance to the King of England. His paper, The Pennsylvania Ledger, sported the King’s Arms in the masthead; however, he promises political impartiality in his byline. Benjamin Towne, the opportunistic printer of The Pennsylvania Evening Post, hounded Humphreys for his political beliefs and was able to drive him out of town in order to get a share of the congressional printings. In an effort to appease his readers, Humphreys dropped the King’s Arms from his masthead on June 22.

He published the Declaration of Independence on July 13 on page two. On the front page he printed a large ad for the second edition of Thomas Paine's seminal work Common Sense. Humphreys was a distributor for this work and used his newspaper to generate business for book sales. Page one also carries a debate from the House of Lords dated March 5. The Revolution is the main topic of discussion. The interesting note here is that there seems to be no unity among the Lords in their opinions on the war. A reader gets the impression that ambivalence and division is rampant so that by the time one reads the Declaration, it seems that independence is not impossible.

The Connecticut Courant is the oldest continuously printed newspaper in America. It was established by Samuel Green, the scion of a famous printing family in Connecticut. When Samuel died, his partner Ebenezer Watson took over the paper. After the British captured New York, The Connecticut Courant became the largest newspaper in the Northeast. Ebenezer was famous for his humanity and loyalty to independence. He discarded the King's Arms as the masthead and substituted the Arms of Connecticut. On July 15, 1776, he printed the Declaration of Independence on page two, following another report of speeches in the Parliament showing growing support for the American cause.

After Ebenezer died of smallpox in 1777, his wife, Hannah, took over the press. She was the first woman printer in Connecticut and successfully ran the printing house through great adversity, including a disastrous fire that destroyed the Courant's paper mill. She petitioned the Connecticut Legislature for a loan to restore the mill. Within a day, the legislature approved a state-run lottery to support the rebuilding of the mill, and the Courant didn't miss an issue. Its printing of the Declaration after the pro-American speeches in Parliament shows another way printers could subtly shape support for independence, and its subsequent history confirms the importance of women printers in the Revolutionary era.

John Rogers began The American Gazette on June 22, 1776, but it only lasted a few weeks. This was enough time to include the Declaration of Independence in his July 16 issue. The Declaration is on the first page and the last page of the four pages of the paper. Inside is the speech of Lord Richmond, described earlier in The New York Packet. Rogers used the same masthead as the Journal, an interesting engraving of a ship with a book surrounded by the Angel of Liberty and an Indian Chief. Like Samuel Loudon, he understood how Lord Richmond's speech could be used as propaganda to tilt public opinion in favor of independence.

Thomas and Samuel Green were sons of the Samuel Green who established a printing dynasty in New England. These brothers published The Connecticut Journal between 1767 and 1809. They published the Declaration of Independence on July 17. It appeared on the second page, set off by a crude decorative border made up of miscellaneous pieces of type that separate the Declaration from the rest of the text.

Edward Powars and Nathaniel Willis purchased The New England Chronicle from Samuel Hall on June 13, 1776. They ran the Declaration on the front page. Inoculation for smallpox was important in 1776, as its far safer and more effective modern form has become again today. The ad in Powars's and Willis's newspaper illuminates one of the major dangers that threatened to undermine the American struggle for independence.

The Essex Journal was started by Isaiah Thomas on December 4, 1773. Thomas was a prolific printer, editor, writer, and author of the definitive History of Printing in America from which much of the information on pre-Revolutionary newspapers comes. He founded the American Antiquarian Society, the most important repository of eighteenth-century American newspapers in the world. Thomas sold his rights to the newspaper to Ezra Lunt in 1774 who then sold to John Mycall.

Mycall printed the Declaration on page one. The masthead includes the familiar images of the American Indian and the sailing ship. Following the Declaration, there is a proclamation delivered on July 4 in Watertown, Massachusetts, calling for August 1 to be a day of "public humiliations, fasting and prayer," to bring an end to the British atrocities against Americans. The proclamation ends with the emphatic declamation "GOD save AMERICA!"

John Dixon and William Hunter printed the Declaration of Independence on page two of their July 20 issue of The Virginia Gazette out of Williamsburg, Virginia. Dixon and Hunter owned one of three newspapers titled "Virginia Gazette" in Williamsburg at this time. On June 1, 1776, they printed George Mason’s Declaration of Rights adopted by the Virginia constitutional convention. Thomas Jefferson closely followed the wording and ideas of this document, as can be seen in its words "That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." The material the Gazette printed in the weeks surrounding the appearance of the Declaration of Independence supports Jefferson's contention that the Declaration was not an original work but "an expression of the American mind."

Benjamin Edes was a great patriot and printer centered in Boston. When the British took Boston he escaped by night in a boat with a press and a few types. He opened a printing house in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he continued publishing his paper The Boston Gazette. The quality of printing suffered greatly due to the deprivations of war. Printing presses, typefaces, ink and paper were all imported from England. Edes had to work with worn type, poor quality ink, and a severe shortage of paper. The available paper was barely fit for printing. To address the paper shortage, Edes advertised for rags from which paper was made. On the last column of page one, along with the Declaration of Independence, Edes advertises "Cash given for clean Cotton and Linen RAGS, at the Printing-Office in Watertown." The Declaration appears here amid evidence of what the war for independence cost printers and their profession.

Alexander Purdie was born in Scotland, where he learned the printing trade. He printed the Declaration of Independence in his Virginia Gazette on the front page on July 26, 1776. At the top of column one he printed this notice: "In COUNCIL, July 20, 1776, Ordered THAT the printers publish in their respective Gazettes the DECLARATION of INDEPENDENCE made by the Honourable of the Continental Congress, and that the sheriff of each county of this commonwealth proclaim the same at the door of his courthouse the first court day after he shall have received the same." This notice is primary evidence of Congress's intent to use newspapers to print and disburse a government document.

Purdie's patriotism is readily apparent in the newspaper masthead, where the Arms of Virginia include the famous phrase "Don't Tread on Me" and below the masthead is the subtitle "High Heaven to Gracious Ends directs the Storm!" On page two following the Declaration is the following report: "Williamsburg, July 26. 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 cannons and musketry, the several regiments of continental troops having been paraded on that solemnity." Here we have an eyewitness report of the celebrations surrounding the publication of the Declaration of Independence, a celebration that has continued uninterrupted for over two hundred years.

Congress wrote the Declaration of Independence to be read by as wide an audience as possible. To this end, thirty newspapers in America printed it. The Library of Congress owns fifteen original copies of these printings. Reading the Declaration as it first appeared in newspapers brings it to life as a living contemporary document that directed the course of history in the United States and throughout the world. The promises to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have yet to be achieved in much of the world, yet without these promises, would we have come as far as we have today? Keeping the Declaration of Independence fresh and alive in our hearts and minds will continue the spread of democracy. I hope that my sharing my discovery of the importance of studying the first printings of the Declaration of Independence in newspapers will inspire you as much as it has inspired me.

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  July 20, 2010
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