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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
This issue of Worcester’s Massachusetts Spy is one of the most attractive and displayable contemporary newspaper printings of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to having the complete text on page one, the elaborate masthead—unusual for the period—was engraved by Paul Revere and features an image of Liberty seated with a pole and cap. The motto, “Undaunted by Tyrants we’ll DIE or be FREE” makes clear the newspaper’s fervent support of the patriotic cause. The Spy gave many in “western Massachusetts” their first view of America’s immortal founding document – even before it became ‘unanimous.’ DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.
Newspaper. The Massachusetts Spy, Or, American Oracle of Liberty
. Published by Isaiah Thomas, printed by W. Stearns and D. Bigelow, Worcester, Mass., July 17, 1776. Vol. 6, no. 273.
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In the wake of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, followed by King George’s proclamation that the colonies were “engaged in open and avowed rebellion,” the Continental Congress decided enough was enough. The committee appointed to write a statement declaring independence turned the task over to their most eloquent writer, Thomas Jefferson. The Committee submitted their draft to Congress on June 28. While still working on the text of the Declaration, Congress voted on and passed the formal resolution declaring independence on July 2. After final revisions, Jefferson’s declaration was adopted on July 4th.
Printed copies of the Declaration were sent from Philadelphia by John Hancock and others, starting on July 5th, to circulate the news as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. Timeliness of publication depended on how long the initial copies spent in transit, as well as the newspapers’ printing schedules; once a week was the most common in Colonial America.
The earliest copies of the Declaration arrived in Boston on Saturday, July 13th, according to Dr. Samuel Cooper, patriot pastor of Brattle-Street Church. On July 18th, town officials held a public reading from the state house balcony. This issue of The Massachusetts Spy was published on July 17—the day before both of Boston’s newspaper printings and the official Boston readings. It is the first Worcester printing and only the second Massachusetts printing.
The first Massachusetts printing appeared at Salem in the July 16, 1776 issue of Ezekiel Russell’s American Gazette. The next day, the Massachusetts council ordered a broadside printing to be sent to all parish ministers for public reading, and then to be recorded (copied by hand) by town clerks in each town’s books for preservation. The official broadside, prepared in Salem by Ezekiel Russell, was likely printed ca July 20, but wasn’t distributed until early August. Abigail Adams heard it read in her Boston church on August 11 – three weeks after Stearns and Bigelow published their scoop.
By the end of August 1776, the Declaration had been printed in at least 29 American newspapers and 14 broadsides; all are extremely rare on the market. The last copy on the market of the first official broadside (one page printing with text only on one side) of the Declaration, by John Dunlap, was sold by Sotheby’s in June 2000 for $8,140,000, and recently sold again privately at a multiple of that price. The last copy on the market of the first newspaper printing, the July 6, 1776 Pennsylvania Evening Post, was sold by Robert A. Siegel Auctions, Inc., in conjunction with Seth Kaller, Inc., on June 25, 2013, for $632,500.
Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) was a leading printer, author, bookseller, and publisher of the influential newspaper, Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy. At age 7, Thomas was apprenticed to Boston printer Zechariah Fowle. In 1766, with three years remaining, Thomas left Fowle and sailed to Halifax, where he planned to work his way to London. Instead he found employment with the Halifax Gazette. After inserting too many anti government pieces, he was forced to leave. In 1770, he began publishing the Spy in Boston, and quickly came under fire from Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson. As Boston descended into revolution, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, and other associates encouraged him to escape from Boston with his press. He left for Worcester in the middle of the night of April 16, 1775, just three days before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. On May 3, from Worcester, he published one of the earliest accounts of the battle. His press helped convince the residents of Massachusetts Bay beyond Boston to join the Revolution.
Thomas lived in Worcester intermittently during the war. In March 1776, the paper ran into financial trouble due to non-payment of subscriptions and other debts. On June 21, 1776, he leased the day-to-day operations of the press to William Stearns and Daniel Bigelow, two Harvard graduates with no printing experience, while Thomas set about to collect monies owed to him. He would later lease to Anthony Haswell, before taking back his own business operations again in 1778.
As the story goes, news of independence, likely the July 2 resolution, reached Worcester ahead of the courier bringing the official John Dunlap-printed broadsides from Philadelphia to the hinterlands. The Spy printed the report that the Continental Congress had declared independence, on July 10, adding “we hope it is true.” Thomas, again in town to work on collecting his debts, intercepted a rider and discovered that the messenger was bearing the Declaration of Independence to Boston. He supposedly borrowed the Declaration to copy it and read it aloud to a crowd gathered off the western porch of the Old South Meeting House. Likely, he quickly copied the Declaration to be printed in the Spy. The date of the reading has been reported as July 14 and 15, depending on source, with Thomas either standing on the porch roof of the meetinghouse, on the porch itself, or inside the church. As early as 1892, the story was suggested to be apocryphal, with research that determined the tale made its first appeared sixty years after the fact. Moreover, the July 17 issue of the Spy that prints the Declaration is silent on the event, while the following week, after the Declaration was read on July 22 at the “green around the liberty pole,” his newspaper printed a detailed account of the raucous fête.
After the war, Thomas, having taken back his business, built it into a highly successful print shop and book publishing house. In 1812 he founded what is now the American Antiquarian Society.
Other content in this newspaper
The pages of this issue provide context from that critical month. Articles detail:
Williamsburg, June 22. Two ships arrived in Charleston, South Carolina with “arms and powder” after the French lifted the prohibition on selling war materiel to the Americans. Also notes the French are preparing for war and that while the British evacuated Fort Johnstone, North Carolina, they had nonetheless left behind blankets “with an intention, it is thought, of spreading some infectious disorder among us.” (p. 2, col. 3).
New York, July 14. “In the night of Tuesday, the Ministerial [fleet] took possession of Staten Island.”
Boston, July 11. Reports of ships and supplies arriving in Boston, and the arrival of a ship captured in the Gulf of Florida by a privateer, the Yankey, as well as the arrival of “a French Engineer ...in the service of Congress.” (p. 2, col. 3).
Worcester, July 14. Notice requesting that the Committees of Safety in Worcester County “transmit forthwith to the standing Committee the names of such Persons in their respective Towns, who are esteemed to be notoriously enimical [sic] to the rights of America.” (p. 2, col. 3).
London, April 19. Detailing the plans of the British to “make the greatest effort... to reduce America to an unconditional submission” and a response from Amsterdam. (p. 3, col. 1).
New York, July 8-11. British troop movements and the arrival of ships from Halifax, the occupation of Staten Island, and news that the “Declaration of Independency 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” followed by news that the equestrian statue of George III “which Tory pride and folly raised in the year 1770,” was torn down by “Sons of Freedom, laid prostrate in the dirt, the just dessert of an ungrateful tyrant. The lead wherewith this monument was made is to be ran into bullets, to assimilate with the brains of our infatuated adversaries, who, to gain a pepper corn have lost an empire. ” (p. 3, col. 2).
Hartford, July 15. 150 Tories “fell upon the Sons of liberty” and took over the Committee Chamber but were repulsed by 3,000 men supporting the American cause. (p. 3, col. 3).
Worcester, July 17. Harvard College would not hold a public commencement this year, along with news that the Massachusetts General Court passed a law setting up hospitals for the inoculation against smallpox. (p. 2, col. 3).
And various acts of the Continental Congress and state governments including:
Philadelphia June 24. Act of Congress requiring allegiance to the United Colonies and forbidding anyone from levying war against the colony, being an adherent of the king under pain of treason, and forbidding counterfeiting of Continental bills of credit. Signed in type by John Hancock. (p. 4, col. 1).
Philadelphia June 24. “The Declaration of the Deputies of Pennsylvania met in Provincial Congress” declaring that state’s independence from Britain (p. 4, col. 1).
Watertown, June 24. Resolution of the Massachusetts General Court to outfit the militia with entrenching tools, as well as a resolution recommending that Massachusetts citizens turn in their lead window sash weights to make musket balls. (p. 4, col. 2).
Charleston, S.C., May 22 “Report from Captain Tufts of the Colony Schooner Defense,” attempting to take an English man of war.
Newport, June 10-20. “The prisoners brought here on Friday evening, whoi report that ther were part of 33 sail of transports which left Geonock [?] in company, having 3000 troops on board bound for Boston.”
And the usual shipping and privateering news (p. 4, col. 2-3).
Additional Historical Background
On July 18th, a day after the Massachusetts Spy printed it, (and the same day that Boston newspapers published it), the Declaration was proclaimed by Col. Thomas Crafts from the balcony of the State House in Boston. Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams that:
“…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 appeard joyfull. 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 vestage of him from every place in which it appeard and burnt in King Street. Thus ends royall Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen.”
Multiple thirteen-gun salutes honored the Union of thirteen colonies. Boston had only recently driven occupying British troops from the city after a prolonged confrontation lasting from July 1775 to March 1776. The siege of Boston ended when American troops fortified Dorchester Heights overnight with artillery trained on British ships in the harbor. The fleet sailed away in defeat and General Howe turned his efforts to capturing New York. Washington anticipated this strategy and strengthened his forces in New York in preparation for its defense.
Brigham, Clarence S. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1947.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
Franke-Ruta, Garance. “George Washington’s Bioterrorism Strategy: How We Handled It Last Time,” Washington Monthly (Dec. 2001)
Hazelton, John H. Declaration of Independence, Its History. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1906.
Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams Family Papers, Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 21-22 July 1776, found at http://www.masshist.org/publications/apde2/view?id=AFC02d034
Reidel, Stefan, M.D., Ph.D. “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination.” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings (Jan. 2005) 18(1):21-25.
Shields, Robin. “Publishing the Declaration of Independence,” found at www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/declaration.html
Walsh, Michael J.“Contemporary Broadside Editions of the Declaration of Independence.” Harvard Library Bulletin 3 (1949).
 The Declaration became unanimous on July 9, 1776 when New York finally voted in favor. The title of the Declaration was changed to “The Unanimous Declaration . . .” in August 1776, when the signed vellum copy was engrossed.
 Abigail Adams to John Adams, July 21-22, 1776.