In this age of instant communications, when participants and observers can tweet simultaneous reports of momentous events to followers around the world, it can be difficult to realize how long it took to spread word of the newly-signed Declaration of Independence. The members of the second Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration on 4 July 1776, but many historians now believe that it wasn't completely signed by all the members until August.
The first reading to the public was in Philadelphia on July 8. Printed copies of the Declaration were sent as swiftly as possible to all the colonies, where they were read out loud as well as reprinted in local newspapers. But the colonies were spread far apart and roads were bad or often non-existent, and many colonists didn't learn the important news for weeks or even months. The British king and government from whom independence was declared had to wait even longer. Even the speediest of trans-Atlantic voyages took weeks in the 18th c., and it wasn't until mid-August that ordinary Londoners could read the Declaration for themselves in English newspapers.
Abigail Adams (last seen on our blog here) learned the news in a letter written by her husband John Adams on 3 July 1776. While in the excerpt below, John correctly predicted that the signing would be forever celebrated by the new country, Abigail must have had at least a few misgivings as she read John's letter. In those early days of rebellion, all the men who signed the declaration were considered traitors by the King of England. There was now a reward offered for her husband's capture, and with his signature, he had pledged his life, his family's welfare, and his fortune for the sake of independence and freedom: a very high price, indeed.
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as a the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.
Left: Declaration of Independence, 1776
Right: Drummer Boys in Revolutionary War-era Uniforms, Colonial Williamsburg, photo copyright Susan Holloway Scott