Distributing the Declaration of Independence to We the People

The Declaration of Independence didn’t come about by accident. At the time, our Founding Fathers were engaged in a war for independence against the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. And the war wasn’t going well.

In the Continental Congress, Richard Henry Lee, a representative from Virginia, made a motion that the Congress ought to put on paper why we were fighting the British. Keep in mind that many pamphleteers, such as Thomas Paine, had laid out some of the arguments for independence.

Five men – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson – were assigned the task in mid-June 1776. Since Jefferson had the best “hand” and was a more “polished writer,” he was given the task of writing and wordsmithing the document outlined earlier by Adams.

About two weeks later July 4th, 1776, the finished document was read and ratified by the Continental Congress. Now, the problem was disseminating it to the people, so they understood its content.

The Founding Fathers faced several problems. Remember this was well before the Internet, Federal Express, and the Interstate Highway system, so how was the document distributed the document throughout the Thirteen Colonies. Problem two was literacy. Not everyone – Loyalists and Patriots alike – were literate. Problem three cost. Paper and ink were expensive, and the British attempted to tax every sheet of paper consumed in the Thirteen Colonies.

The first copies were printed in Franklin’s print shop and the first public readings occurred on July 8th, 1776. A copy was taken to the Continental Army to be read to all the soldiers, so they understood why they were fighting.

Copies of the original document were then sent by either courier or on packet ships that sailed up and down the Atlantic Coast. In 1776, about 200+ newspapers and gazettes were being published in the Thirteen Colonies, and each publisher had a printing press.

However, back in the late 18th Century, the type had to be set by hand, letter by letter, and set backwards in the frame. The process was time consuming and cumbersome. The printers then made copies which were, posted as billboards, given to each member of the colonial legislatures, and private individuals.

To reach those who could not read, there were “readings” in taverns or in public squares where a citizen would read the document to the audience. Discussions would follow so everyone understood its content. Wealthier citizens had gathering in their homes to do the same. By the end of the summer of 1776, the Declaration of Independence had been promulgated and even read in Parliament.

When the 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, they were also signing their death warrant because in the eyes of the British government, they were admitting that they were committing treason.

The Declaration of Independence is the first of its kind in modern history. Its words and phrases have been used by those in other countries wanting to become independent from a colonial power. Many of the signers were also members of the Constitutional Convention where they created a document that would provide the framework for the country’s government.

On the eve of this July 4th, 2024, the 248th anniversary of the birth of the United States, We the People need to reflect on the sacrifices our Founding Fathers made and the risks they accepted by signing the Declaration of Independence. It would take another five years and two months, almost to the day when on September 3rd, 1783, the Brits signed the Treaty of Paris, and the United States of America was independent.

Image is an 1824 reproduction of the original printed versions of the Declaration of Independence

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