Centuries before the 24/7 news cycle and instant access to global events, do you know how the American colonists came to learn that independence from England had been declared by the Continental Congress? On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence and formed the new nation of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Congressional members, was written to provide an explanation for why Congress chose to vote for the revolutionary decision, and the document was ratified two days later on July 4, 1776. After its ratification, Congress ordered the publication of a broadside containing the text of the declaration and arranged for its distribution throughout the colonies. Since the date published on the broadside was July 4, 1776, that date came to represent Independence Day. John Adams, however, wanted July 2nd – the date of the vote – to represent the celebration of Independence Day.
The broadsides were distributed far and wide by messengers on horseback and copied in newspapers in all thirteen states. John Hancock sent a broadside to George Washington, who read it to his army at New York on 9 July 1776. The news distributed throughout the newly formed states during the month of July and reached England by August 1776.
Massachusetts Provincial Congressman Richard Derby Jr. ordered the following directive for the Declaration of Independence’s distribution in Massachusetts:
Ordered that the Declaration of Independence Be Printed and a Copy Sent to the minister of Each Parish of Every Denomination Within this State and that they Severaly [sic] Be Required to Read the Same to their Respective Congregations as Soon as Devine Service is ended in the afternoon on the First Lord’s Day after they shall have Received it and after such Publication thereof to Deliver the said Declaration to the Clerks of the Several Towns or Districts who are Hereby Required to Record the Same in the Respective Town or District Books there to Remain as a Perpetual memorial thereof in the name and By order of the council.
Richard Derby Jr.’s order that the Declaration of Independence be sent, read, and recorded by each Massachusetts town ensured that each community gathered together to learn that they were no longer British colonists, but citizens of the United States of America. Derby’s father, Richard Derby Sr. also played a major role in the distribution of news throughout the Revolutionary War. Derby Sr. was a merchant ship owner from Salem, owner of the schooner Quero which was sent to England immediately following the Battle of Lexington and Concord to offer the patriot version of the battle, which arrived two weeks in advance of the heavier and slower brig Sukey that carried the British army report. Derby’s ships then brought back to America the first news of London’s response regarding the start of the Revolutionary War. Derby’s ships also later brought the news to America detailing the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783.
At a town meeting held at the Pembroke Meeting House on Monday the 29th of July 1776, the Pembroke town clerk John Turner recorded the Declaration of Independence in the town records. At the time Pembroke also included the area which later became the town of Hanson, Massachusetts.
Per Derby’s instruction, the Declaration of Independence was read at the First Congregational Church by Rev. Thomas Smith, and at the Second Church in the Pembroke West Parish (today the Hanson Congregational Church) by Rev. Gad Hitchcock. Just two years prior, Rev. Hitchcock had delivered the patriotic election sermon in Boston’s Old South Church to an audience including the controversial Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gage. Hitchcock pointedly sermoned from Proverbs 29:2 “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” It was said that Hitchcock later joked that his election sermon was a “moving discourse, inasmuch as it moved many of the [Loyalist] congregation out of the house”. The Declaration was perhaps also read at the Pembroke Friends Meeting House at a gathering of Quakers.
Since Pembroke town clerk John Turner recorded the Declaration at a town meeting on Monday, it was probably publicly read either the day before at the various churches on Sunday, July 28th, or the previous Sunday, July 21st. It was read aloud to the public in Boston at the State House on Thursday, July 18th.
The Pembroke town meeting on July 28, 1776 included the important work of recording the Declaration of Independence as a “perpetual memory” with two other items on the agenda. 10 men had enlisted in Pembroke to serve in the Revolutionary War on a mission to attempt to gain control of Quebec. The state offered a seven pound bounty reward to every soldier who enlisted, so the citizens of Pembroke voted to raise £80 through a tax on the town to provide an additional town bounty for £8 per man “making a bounty of 15 pounds in the whole”. Pembroke citizens also voted to raise £120 to repay the money hired by a committee for a bounty paid to Pembroke men who were sent to New York the previous year.
Below are the pages from the town meeting minutes of the reading of Pembroke’s copy of the Declaration of Independence, as recorded by town clerk John Turner. It must have been an incredible moment for Turner, who headed the Pembroke Committee of Correspondence which wrote the “Pembroke Resolves” in 1772 calling for the separation from Great Britain.
[Posted by Mary Blauss Edwards, Hanson Historical Society Curator]