J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The Declaration Arrives in Massachusetts

As I described yesterday, on 10 July 1776 the Massachusetts Council sat down in Watertown with men representing the Malecite (Wolastoqiyik) and Mi’kmaq nations from what would become Maine and New Brunswick, to discuss an alliance during the Revolutionary War. An unusually detailed record of their discussion appears in the Documentary History of the State of Maine, volume 24, starting on page 165.

Boston merchant and politician James Bowdoin was then President of the Council, and the record quotes him as starting out: “As Some of you speak French, we have desired Mr. Job. Prince who speaks French also to Interpret what shall be Said at this Conference: And we have appointed Mr. John Avery as clerk to take Minutes of it.” In addition, “Colo. [William] Lithgow who understands the Indian Language was desired to assist as interpreter.”

The leader of the Malecites, Ambroise Saint-Aubin, responded, “We like it well.” Or rather, that was how his response was translated. He was credited with saying similar things at other times, so it was probably a general formula of approval. He also seems to have spoken a lot of the time for the entire Native embassy.

The conversation went on for a few days, with the Massachusetts officials quizzing the Natives about how many fighting men they could supply, and the Mi’kmaq and Malecites listing their conditions for joining the American cause. On 13 July, the General Court (the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature) adjourned for the month.

On 14 July, it appears, the first copies of the Declaration of Independence reached Massachusetts. Worcester claims that Isaiah Thomas read the document publicly there on that day. That statement seems to be based on a statement in the biography of Thomas that his grandson Benjamin Franklin Thomas wrote for an 1874 reissue of The History of Printing in America. But see if you can spot the problem:

While on a visit to Worcester, July 24th, 1776, he read from the porch of the South Church to an assembly consisting of almost the entire population of that and adjoining towns, the declaration of independence. . . . The declaration was received with every demonstration of joy and confidence. The King's arms were taken from the Court House and burned to ashes. The sign was removed from the King's Arms tavern and a joyful celebration had there in the evening...
A copy of this book in Google Books actually has a handwritten note changing “July 24th” to “July 14th.” Because the 24th was days after the well documented public reading of the Declaration in Boston, which would make Thomas and Worcester afterthoughts.

Thomas had no official government standing—indeed, from the way his grandson wrote, he wasn’t even living in Worcester at the time. But as a printer, he received the news first. As a Patriot activist, he was enthusiastic about it. And as a tall man, he probably didn’t have a lot of people objecting to him reading what he wanted to read. The 14th was a Sunday, making it likely that people would indeed have been at the meetinghouse. I’d like to find a contemporary reference to Thomas’s reading, but haven’t so far.

In any event, on 16 July the Declaration was the front-page item of the American Gazette, a newspaper printed at Ezekiel Russell’s shop in Salem, so we know it had gotten that far by then. And on the same afternoon, the document figured in the negotiations at Watertown.

TOMORROW: How the Declaration changed the negotiations.

1 comment:

DAG said...

Dear Mr. Bell,

I just want to say that I love this blog. Being a history buff and living in the Boston area I very much enjoy that you have opened my eyes to different events. Some I had read about and some I have never heard of. We are blessed to live in an area with such an abundance of history and thanks to those before us for the preservation of many of the sites.

Thanks again, I look forward to reading your blog and the events I learn from it.