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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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Sheriff Greenleaf and Col. Crafts Read the Declaration

In October 1841, Daniel Greenleaf (1762-1853) wrote to a Boston newspaper from his home in Quincy. He was correcting some recollections of Revolutionary Boston from Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854), who he thought was too young to remember events clearly:

The Declaration of Independence was read by William Greenleaf (my father), the sheriff. . . . My father was so proud of that proclamation that he had the paper from which he read it framed and glassed, and it hung over his parlor fireplace as long as he was a housekeeper.

As his voice was rather weak, he requested Colonel [Thomas] Crafts to act as his herald; they stood together at the front of the balcony, and my father read a sentence, which was immediately repeated by Crafts, and so continued to the end, when was the huzza. . . .

The lion and unicorn [from the Town House] were burnt on the evening of the declaration on a bonfire, in front of the Bunch of Grapes [tavern], as were the king’s arms from the Court-House, and all signs bearing emblems of royalty that could be found.
This first public reading of the Declaration in Boston took place on 18 July 1776, when its text reached Boston from Philadelphia. Col. Crafts’s artillery regiment and other military units were drawn up in the streets below the balcony on the Town House, now called the Old State House. Also among the listeners were a couple of British officers captured aboard a transport ship.

The lion and unicorn were heraldic symbols of the British king. Though they were burned in 1776, when the Old State House was preserved from being dismantled and was instead “restored” in 1882, reproductions went back up, as shown above, courtesy of iBoston.org. Here’s a color photo of the lion and unicorn, and a close-up of the unicorn.

Greenleaf’s letter appears to have been published first in the Boston Transcript on 2 Aug 1855. I think it’s a reliable picture of the event because he wasn’t just puffing up his father, who as sheriff did indeed have the duty of reading important proclamations. He also acknowledged that Papa had a weak voice and needed Crafts’s stentorian help.


Anonymous said...

Bravo, Bravo, Bravo! When I lead walking tours I'm often asked for more details about that first reading of the Declaration. Thank you for providing them.

S. Talbot

Pamela Athearn Filbert said...

Portraits of Sheriff Greenleaf and his wife currently hang in the Portland Art Museum, along with that of their son James. I happened upon them one day while visiting with my mother, noted the Greenleaf name, and did some research. I was pleased to discover the Declaration of Independence connection, and now always make it a point to stop by and "visit" my distant cousins when I'm in the building.

Melissa Capen Rolston said...

Sheriff Wm. Greenleaf was coldhearted towards my noble ancestor, Hopestill Capen, a prominent Bostonian importer ( his store was on the wharf where Ye Olde Oyster House today still stands). Tossed him in horrible jails for over 2 years and collaborated with a corrupt judge offering him no habeas corpus. Capen refused to bear arms but was a pacifist and despite his loyalties and a petition by his wife with 80 signatures from prominent business owners, Greenleaf furthered his suffering by sending him to distant prison in the north without heat alongside dangerous criminals where he almost perished, and was later to be exiled to Nova Scotia.

Patriotism is fine, but cruelty is intolerable. Don't even get me going in regard to Ben Franklin. History lessons often veil the truth.

J. L. Bell said...

Capen was a Sandemanian, and sometimes that sect is described as pacifist. Yet Capen enlisted as a sergeant in a Loyalist militia company formed in Boston in July 1775, as shown here. The Sandemanian doctrine was actually obedience to the civil government, not pacifism like the Quakers. That belief allowed Capen eventually to accept the new republican government in Massachusetts, where he returned and died in 1807.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Mr.Bell. Where could one obtain further information on Greenleaf, Capen and the swayed judge who made the final calls in Boston? We are writing a screenplay about the American Revolution in Boston. Ben Affleck coukd potentially be interested in the portrayal of Hopestill Capen whose life is mist certainly film-worthy.

Melissa Capen

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not sure what you’ve based that question on. Capen’s petitions, which were published in Peter Force’s American Archives, name four Boston magistrates as having decided on the basis of local law that he should be confined as inimical to the state of Massachusetts.