Worcester in the American Revolution, Part II: First Reading of the Declaration of Independence

By Timothy Jarvis

After Worcester cut all ties to the throne in 1774, the rest of the nation followed in the footsteps of the independent Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Declaration of Independence was signed by fifty-six delegates on July 4, 1776 officially announcing the United States of America to be a sovereign nation. The Declaration of Independence was printed late afternoon that Thursday by John Dunlap, a local Philadelphia printer.

The newly founded congress ordered copies of the document be sent “to the several Assemblies, Conventions, and Committees or Councils of Safety, and to the several Commanding officers of the Continental Troops, that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the Army.”

By the morning of July 5, 1776, copies of the Declaration were sent to all 13 states by horseback. As the document was being transported, the German Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote, published by Heinrich Miller, became the nation’s first newspaper to announce the Declaration had been signed. On Saturday, July 6, the first newspaper print edition of the full Declaration appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Post.

On Monday, July 8th the Declaration of Independence was read by Col. John Nixon of the Philadelphia Committee of Safety at the Pennsylvania State House. Only a select few heard the historic reading, including the Framers and some in the milita. The copies of the Declaration were received and published in newspapers in other cities such as Easton, PA, Trenton, NJ, Princeton, NJ, and New York City.

However, the first time the Declaration was to be read in front of the masses was in Boston on July 14, 1776. While the document was en route from Philadelphia to Boston, it happened to make a stop in Worcester.

Fearing interception by heavy British patrols occupying Boston in the summer of 1776, it was decided the Declaration would be read in Worcester instead by a distinguished patriot named Isaiah Thomas (the founder and publisher of the original Worcester Spy!).

On July 14, 1776, Thomas performed the first public reading in Massachusetts of the Declaration of Independence in front of Worcester City Hall. It was only fitting that the Declaration was to be read in Worcester; as of 1774, the people of Worcester had already declared that British rule was over and it was time to form a new government.

Furthermore, Worcester had already made a declaration of independence of its own. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress, slated to meet in early October of 1774, decided to submit instructions to the blacksmith Timothy Bigelow, its representative to that upcoming Congress. These instructions told Bigelow that if the Massachusetts Charter of 1691 was not completely restored by the time the Congress gathered the next day, which was of course impossible,
“you are to consider the people of this province absolved, on their part, from the obligation therein contained (the 1691 Massachusetts charter), and to all intents and purposes reduced to a state of nature.”

It continues: “And you are to exert yourself in devising ways and means to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phoenix, a new form, wherein all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people, whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure.”

This was arguably Worcester’s own unique declaration of independence. One could imagine the excitement of Worcester residents as the Declaration of Independence, ratified by the rest of the nation, was to be read at ground zero of the revolution.

The crowd gathered outside Worcester City Hall on July 14, 1776 was riveted by the words Isaiah Thomas read from the document, but for reasons other than the idea of revolution and the birth of a nation. The people of Worcester gathered on that day in solidarity, not to hear a battle cry, but to hear the rest of the colonies prepare to fight as Worcester did in 1774.

The Worcester residents felt this declaration presented to them was an indirect result of their actions only two years before; that was a fair assumption.

Even John Adams, in Philadelphia attending the First Continental Congress, wrote to a friend back home of Worcester and Massachusetts: “Absolute Independency … Startle People here.” Most delegates present at the Continental Congress were terrified by “the proposal of setting up a new form of government of our own.”

Samuel Adams, also at the Continental Congress, warned the people of Massachusetts not to “set up another form of government” for fear of jeopardizing support from other colonies. This warning went unheeded by the Commonwealth, as the case of Worcester indicates. This warning only made it all the more profound when the Declaration was read to the Worcester public.

Those famous revolutionaries from Boston, who supposedly drove the agenda, were trying at this point in history to slow down the Revolution that had swept across Western Massachusetts, including Worcester. But the reading of the Declaration of Independence by Isaiah Thomas only helped to fuel the revolutionaries of the city.

The people of Worcester on July 14, 1776 who gathered at city hall felt they were for sure the vanguard of this unique and unprecedented revolt: The American Revolution.

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