History is one giant game of telephone with information passed, often through multiple sources, to the present day. As such, it is full of myths, exaggerations and inventions that are promulgated online, in history books, by word of mouth and via the media. That is why educators place such great emphasis on the research and study of primary sources, the original documents, correspondence and artifacts from the era. Primary sources aren’t perfect and come with their own set of issues, but they are the most timely sources and reduce transmission errors.
The American Revolution is ripe with fantasy and fabrications. Many history books dedicate long tracts or entire chapters to debunking tall tales that have popped up over time. Historian Ray Raphael dedicated an entire volume, Founding Myths (2004), to “exploring the dynamic intersection between history-making and story-making,” such as the legends of Paul Revere’s ride, Molly Pitcher, Valley Forge and several others.
While attending the American Revolution Round Table recently in Charleston, South Carolina, an interesting story was shared with me by one of the attending historians. The story went something like this: The U.S. Declaration of Independence was first printed in an Irish newspaper because the ship carrying it to London experienced bad weather and was diverted first to Belfast, Ireland.
With wireless internet and my MacBook Air handy, I did some quick research and, sure enough, the story was everywhere: BBC News, Wikipedia (now corrected), and a book published by an academic press. The story even turned up in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail (July 8, 2010) as the greatest journalism scoop of all time! According to the Daily Mail, “the paper published news of the Declaration of Independence before King George III or Parliament had seen it in August, 1776 – thus securing one of the world’s first great exclusives.” It appears the details of this story originate in a 2007 article by the Belfast News Letter about its own history. Their version of events go like this:
In August 1776, the News-Letter had arguably its greatest-ever scoop, reporting that America had been declared independent through the July 4 Declaration of Independence. The ship carrying the first copy of the Declaration of Independence out of America was bound for London, but it ran into heavy storms off the north coast of Ireland and was forced to seek refuge in the port of Londonderry. Arrangements were made for the Declaration to be sent to by fast horse to Belfast, where it would be passed to another ship for delivery to King George the Third in London. The News Letter editor gained access to the document and he printed the complete text on the front page of the paper on August 23-27. The News-Letter, being a radical Presbyterian organ, was enthusiastically in support of the colonists, championing their cause for independence. [PDF version of full article]
The only problem is that I knew this story wasn’t true because I had personally seen earlier London newspaper printings of the Declaration of Independence.
The Mercury packet ship arrived in England the second week of August, 1776, with letters from General Howe to Lord George Germain, dated July 7 and 8, at Staten Island. The London Gazette, the official government organ, published an easy-to-miss sentence, only 33 words long, in its Saturday, August 10 edition: “Several Men have within these two Days come over to this Island, and to the Ships, and I am informed that the Continental Congress have declared the United Colonies free and independent States.”
Later that day, the London Evening-Post included its own version of the news: “Advice is received that the Congress resolved upon independence the 4th of July; and have declared war against Great Britain in form.”
The same blurb appeared in the Tuesday, August 13 issue of the London Chronicle. On Wednesday, the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser printed “Copies of the Declarations of War by the Provincials are now in Town and are said to be couched in the strongest terms.” Forty-eight hours later on Friday, August 16, two London newspapers — Public Advertiser and Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle — published what are probably the first European printings of the full Declaration. The following day, the London Chronicle (also often mistaken for having the British scoop) and at least a half dozen other local newspapers printed the full text of the Declaration for readers. It was printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 20; Dublin, Ireland, on August 22; Frankfort, Germany, on August 23; Kilkenny, Ireland, on August 24. And prior to the Declaration arriving in Europe, it had been printed in at least 29 American newspapers.
Bottom line, the Belfast News-Letter did not earn the worldwide exclusive, or the British, or the Irish. Before the News-Letter published the Declaration of Independence, American, English, Scottish German and at least two other Irish newspapers printed it.