“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .” Who were the first people to hear Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words spoken in public? And who was the first person to read them? According to our embraced heritage, the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence happened in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776. This moment in history is reenacted every year in Independence Square. There was, in fact, a reading that day, but it was not the first one. Thirty years ago a historian presented evidence of a public reading four days earlier, on July 4, 1776 itself. According to the scant testimony he found, someone read the Declaration that day to a crowd gathered outside the State House (later renamed Independence Hall). Here we will add additional evidence of that first public reading.
No one knows exactly what course of action the staff of Congress took to print the Declaration, which resulted in the famous Dunlap broadside. The clean, handwritten copy of the rough draft made for the use of the printer is lost. Likewise, no one can say for sure who gave the first public reading. One bystander thought it might have been the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, and another said it was his senior clerk, Timothy Matlack. The only thing that seems certain is that the public reading did occur.
The Clean Copy of the Rough Draft
It was on June 7, 1776 that the Virginia Congressman Richard Henry Lee moved the resolution, “That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent states; and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” A vote on the resolution was postponed while Congress continued to debate independence in earnest. But anticipating an agreement, within days Congress assigned a committee the task of preparing a draft of a declaration of independence. The members of the committee were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson was of course the one who drafted the version committee members reviewed and edited before presenting on June 28. Congress agreed to independence on July 2 and the work of editing the draft continued over the next two days.
When the revision was completed on July 4, Congress ordered the Declaration of Independence “proclaimed in each of the United States and at the head of the army.” So that it could be trumpeted everywhere, Congress mandated that it be authenticated, printed, and forwarded to the various civilian and military leaders. The starting point was the rough draft, which Thomas Jefferson had marked up with the numerous corrections, additions and deletions agreed to by Congress.
Did Jefferson himself make a clean copy of the draft? This does not seem likely. To paraphrase the historian Wilfred J. Ritz, when Congress agreed upon a final text it would seem to have been the duty of the secretary and his staff to prepare a fair copy for the printer, it is improbable that Jefferson prepared the fair copy himself. If we assume the work of making up a clean copy fell to Secretary Charles Thomson and his clerical staff, the next question is, did Thomson prepare it? This also seems unlikely because Congress was still in session: after the final text of the Declaration was agreed, the members continued through a long list of business before adjourning for the day. Thomson was busy. In our postulation, he assigned the task of making a clean copy to his senior clerk, Timothy Matlack. This makes sense because Matlack was the secretary’s established penman. Matlack had penned the Petition sent by the First Continental Congress to King George III in 1774; the Olive Branch Petition sent to the King by the Second Congress in 1775; and George Washington’s formal commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental army. The task now at hand was to write a copy of the Declaration the printer would refer to letter by letter to set type.
For this important job Matlack probably did not retire to a quiet corner, but rather consulted with members of Congress. In writing out the copy Matlack introduced mid-sentence capitalizations; for example, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” became “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “enemies in war, in peace friends” became “Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.” This pattern continued throughout every line of the text. The point was to turn up the volume. Although Jefferson’s lower-case style was appropriate for state papers, the printed Declaration of Independence was intended to be posted in public places and proclaimed. The broadside poster, not meant for quiet perusal, was made to be read out loud to crowds gathered across the colonies.
Matlack may have consulted with Thomas Jefferson on one aspect. Jefferson owned many books on the art of reading aloud and public speaking, and was “a diligent student of rhythm, accent, timing, and cadence in discourse.” He, however, was “an ineffective and anxious speaker, a whisperer who on occasion feigned illness to avoid reading his speeches aloud.” Matlack, on the other hand, was more than an established penman: as a radical leader of the Revolution in Pennsylvania, he was an accomplished speaker as well. As John Adams reported, in mid-May 1776, Matlack had been a “principal orator” at a massive town meeting in the State House yard. This was not the first time—nor by any means the last time—that Matlack addressed both large and small meetings in Philadelphia. With this in mind, Secretary Thomson may have decided that Matlack would read the Declaration to the small crowd waiting outside the State House. Preparing to deliver the words with an inspiring natural cadence, it appears that Matlack worked with Jefferson, who had a system for marking up texts for speechmaking. Jefferson used little strike marks to indicate where to place emphasis and where to pause when reading a text out loud. Jefferson had previously inserted these same diacriticalmarks in a section of the rough draft.
The True First Public Reading
In 1992, the legal scholar Wilfred J. Ritz presented evidence of a public reading on July 4, 1776. Although Ritz originally thought that a “leaked” copy was read that day, it was, in fact, an official copy in the hands of a staff member. One eyewitness was Charles Biddle, later Vice President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council. He wrote, “On the memorable Fourth of July, 1776, I was at the Old State-House yard when the Declaration of Independence was read. There were very few respectable citizens present.”
Another spectator, Quaker historian Deborah Norris Logan, was fourteen in the summer of 1776. In a diary she started many years later, she described what she saw and heard on July 4:
It is now a matter of doubt as what hour, or how, the Declaration was given to the people. Perhaps few now remain that heard it read on that day. But of the few I am one: being in the lot adjoining to our old mansion house in Chestnut Street, that then extended to 5th Street, I distinctly heard the words of that Instrument read to the people (I believe from the State House steps, for I did not see the reader) a low building on 5th Street (later the location of City Hall) which prevented my sight and I think it was Charles Thomson’s voice. It took place a little after twelve at noon and they then proceeded down the street, (I understood) to read it at the Court House. It was a time of fearful doubt and great anxiety with the people, many of whom were appalled at the boldness of the measure, and the first audience was neither very numerous, nor composed of the most respectable class of citizens.
As Logan orients us, the Norris property bordered the State House on the south side of Chestnut Street. Standing in her own yard, she could see the crowd on the street and hear the speaker, but due to an obstructed view, she could not see him. She states that she thought the speaker might have been Charles Thomson. Could the speaker have been Thomson and not Matlack? Yes, this is possible if Congress concluded its long list of business, “a little after twelve at noon.” Perhaps Logan knew his voice well enough to identify him.
In 1878 Demorest’s Monthly Magazine published an article which said, “Timothy Matlack is probably entitled to especial commemoration and veneration as the actual reader of the Declaration of Independence, from the State House steps on July 4, 1776.” This witness who identified Matlack as the speaker was Anthony Morris, who was ten years old at the time. Morris was later a merchant and lawyer in Philadelphia, a Speaker of the Pennsylvania State Senate, and a minister to Spain for the United States. He gave his account later in life to the spouse of a Matlack descendant. He told her:
Did you know that your husband’s great grandfather was the first one to read the Declaration of Independence to the people of Philadelphia from the State House steps? I was a young boy, July 4, 1776, at the time and stood in the crowd and heard him. Whether he was chosen as a reader for his stentorian voice or for the position he held in the Commonwealth I cannot tell. I only know that I heard him.
A local historian named A. M. Stackhouse later asked, “May not the occasion referred to by Mr. Morris have been an unofficial reading by Colonel Matlack? He was at that time clerk of Congress. The last mention made of him in that capacity is on the 11th day of July 1776.” The testimony of Anthony Morris is the only one that names Matlack as the speaker.
Another account identifies another witness, a militia man named George Piper. The author of a brief biography stated that “Piper listened to the reading of the Declaration of Independence in front of the State House, Philadelphia, July 4, 1776.”
Although legal scholar Ritz was unaware of both the Morris and Piper testimonies, he pointed to the contemporaneous journal of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. On July 2, 1776, Muhlenberg wrote: “It is said that the Continental Congress resolved to declare the thirteen united colonies free and independent.” On July 4, 1776, he wrote: “Today the Continental Congress openly declared the united provinces of North America to be free and independent states.” The change in emphasis from “resolved to declare” to “openly declared” suggests Muhlenberg witnessed or heard about the public reading(s).
In her book American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence, the historian Pauline Maier refers readers to Ritz “For evidence that the Declaration was first read publicly on July 4 to a small audience that included few ‘respectable’ people.” Regarding this characterization of the people gathered that day, both Biddle and Logan said they were members of the “lower” sector of society. In another diary entry Logan wrote derisively, “The crowd that assembled at the State House was not great and those among them who joined in the acclamation were not the most sober or reflecting.” This description helps us distinguish between the informal crowd of working artisans and laborers who heard the Declaration read on July 4, and the formal one of wealthier merchants and lawyers who attended the grand ceremony on July 8.
The first people to hear the words of the Declaration were the common people standing out on Chestnut Street on July 4, 1776. The first to read them in public was likely either Timothy Matlack or Charles Thomson. As the people’s tribune, Matlack would have been addressing his constituents. If the historian Deborah Norris Logan is correct, the crowd followed the speaker to the Court House where he read the Declaration a second time.
Printing The Dunlap Broadside
Regarding the actual printing of the broadside, Congress ordered “That the Committee appointed to prepare the Declaration superintend and correct the press.” In practical terms this meant the members of the drafting committee should make themselves available if needed. As the historian Donald B. Chidsey said, “It would seem almost certain that no member of the committee took Congress’s charge literally and appeared at the print shop to oversee the job.” The five men who sat on the committee were distinguished members of Congress, and at the time among the most important men in America. In the culture of the day, rolling up their sleeves alongside the printer’s apprentices would have been below their station. Instead, Congress employed clerks for these interactions.
Whether or not Matlack or Thomson read the Declaration a second time at the Court House, one of them had the clean copy in his hands. It would therefore be logical that they dropped the copy off to the printer. A piece of physical evidence exists that links the clean copy to the printed Dunlap broadside, a fragment of the printer’s proof copy in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. No complete proof copy of the Dunlap broadside has survived; the fragment of the top half is the only remnant in existence. The evidence is an error by the compositors visible in the proof. The mistake the typesetters made was reproducing the speaker’s marks as random quotation marks. As we have seen, little strike marks were likely inserted in the clean copy to prepare the speaker for the public reading. The printer erroneously typeset these marks, mistaking them for punctuation. Whoever reviewed the proof copy realized what had happened. The printer was advised, and the marks were removed before the final printing.
Election Day and the Ceremonial Public Reading
In Pennsylvania, July 8 was an election day. At stake were seats in the all-important state constitutional convention. In Philadelphia, two committees competed to get their candidates elected (Matlack was a candidate for the radical faction, the one that believed in democracy). The ceremonial reading of the Declaration on July 8 was planned as a campaign event. Committee member Christopher Marshall described a planning session:
Near eight, went to [the] committee, Philosophical Hall . . . Agreed that the Declaration of Independence be declared at the State House next Second Day [Monday, July 8]. At the same time, the King’s arms there are to be taken down by nine Associators, here appointed, who are to convey it to a pile of casks erected upon the commons, for the purpose of a bonfire, and the arms placed on top. This being Election day, I opposed the motion, only by having this put off till next day, fearing it would interrupt the Election, but the motion was carried by the majority.
On July 8, a Monday morning, the rival committeemen met at Philosophical Hall and walked over to the State House in procession for the ceremony. In the State House yard, Col. John Nixon read the Declaration in front of a large crowd. The people responded with loud huzzas. In a letter to a friend, John Adams described this public reading: “The Declaration was yesterday published and proclaimed from the awfull Stage, in the State house yard, by whom do you think? by the Committee of Safety! the Committee of Inspection, and a great Crowd of People. Three cheers rended the Welkin.” The ceremony was followed by general festivities including ringing bells, a parade on the commons, and burning the king’s arms. Adams also reported, “The Election for the City was carried on amidst all this Lurry.” He named Matlack among the men elected for Philadelphia.
The Declaration was also read that day to crowds in Easton, Pennsylvania, and Trenton, New Jersey. The next day, in New York City, George Washington “caused the Declaration to be proclaimed before all the army under my immediate command.”
Congress Orders a Fine Engrossed Copy
Meeting in White Plains, the New York convention approved the Declaration on July 9 and joined with the other colonies in supporting it. The Declaration was now unanimous. Ten days later Congress ordered the Declaration “fairly engrossed on parchment” and “signed by every member of Congress.” As was his habit, Secretary Thomson assigned this task to his penman, Timothy Matlack. The result was the famous signed Declaration of Independence.
When he sat down to work, Matlack may have used the clean handwritten copy and the printed broadside as his reference. At the top of the printed sheet a date was fixed in history, and so Matlack copied, “In Congress, July 4, 1776.” Next came the title. The original one, as printed on July 4, was “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled.” The new title was definitive: “The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” The decorative lettering as rendered by Matlack was formal and elegant. The single line was aesthetically balanced. Matlack chose to highlight the first three and last three words in large majuscule lettering. Part of his calculation was space: he needed to reserve plenty of it at the bottom for signatures. As a result, the four middle words, including “united,” appear small.
In the clean copy he possibly made on July 4, Matlack must have added a dash after “pursuit of happiness.” Now he added another one after “consent of the governed.” By doing so, Matlack introduced a balanced three-part structure to a group of propositions that advance logically from one to the next. Now the all-important second sentence of the Declaration could be read with a clarity that was not there before:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, that to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Regarding the liberal capitalization deployed in the clean copy—and therefore the broadside—Matlack toned it down for this formal document. Whereas in the clean copy he capitalized about three hundred words in mid-sentence, Matlack now reduced the number to about one hundred thirty.
Matlack was at the time a delegate to the Pennsylvania constitutional convention as well as colonel of Philadelphia’s fifth militia battalion. Given the level of stress he was under, the two mistakes he made in a text of over 1,300 words are understandable. And at some point, these errors were corrected in the margin.
When the members of Congress—new and old—began signing the engrossed Declaration on August 2, Matlack was in New Jersey assessing the militia camps at Amboy and Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Due to the constitutional convention in progress, he did not stay long. On August 5 Gen. Hugh Mercer reported to General Washington that, “Colonel Matlock is gone to Philada to represent the [angry] Temper of the Associators [Pennsylvania militiamen] to the Convention, that some Speedy method by [cash] bounty or otherwise may be adopted, to facilitate the Recruiting business.”
It was all Matlack could do to fight a war and write the Declaration. The clerical work he did for Congress was now in the past. But once signed, Matlack’s engrossed parchment was eventually recognized by America as the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, Congress had intended it for internal use only. Independence had already been publicly declared.
The famously signed parchment Declaration of Independence began its rise in the American consciousness when the series Biography of the Signers of the Declaration appeared in the 1820s. A facsimile was first distributed in 1824. It was not until 1841 that the original signed Declaration was placed on public display in the Patent Office in Washington. The Declaration shared a large frame with George Washington’s commission, and it remained there until it was loaned to Philadelphia for its celebration of our nation’s centennial.
We now know categorically that both documents in that frame were penned by Timothy Matlack. In 1916, the Library of Congress compared Washington’s commission—known to have been penned by him—to the Declaration. The chief of the Division of Manuscripts reported that a handwriting analysis established “beyond a doubt that the writer of the great Declaration was Timothy Matlack.” As we have seen, Matlack may have also been the first to read it in public.
The coming celebration of the United States semiquincentennial is an opportunity to update our Independence Day narrative. Recognition of the first public reading on July 4, 1776—as put forward by Wilfred J. Ritz thirty years ago—could be part of that process. Why is this public reading important? Because the people who gathered outside Independence Hall that day were the ones who drove the revolution in Pennsylvania. Led by radicals including Timothy Matlack, the “lower sort” forced Pennsylvania’s elite to accept independence. Thanks to the pressure they applied in their colony, Congress was able to adopt the Declaration of Independence unanimously. Nothing symbolizes this effort better than the public readingfrom the stairs of Independence Hall on July 4, 1776. The radicals went on to write an ultra-democratic constitution for Pennsylvania which was the beginning of the fight for equality in America.
Wilfred J. Ritz, “From the Here of Jefferson’s Handwritten Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence to the There of the Printed Dunlap Broadside,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. CXVI, No. 4 (October 1992), 503.
Journals of Congress Vol II, January 1, 1776 to January 1, 1777 (Yorktown, PA: 1778), 247. After the Declaration was agreed to on July 4, Congress continued in session conducting business which included reading a letter from General Washington; planning for the defense of New Jersey and Pennsylvania; appointing commissioners for Indian affairs; authorizing the President of Congress to hire another private secretary; ordering the board of war to procure flints and contract for future manufacture; and forming a committee of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams to “prepare a device for a seal for the United States of America.”
Stephen E Lucas, “Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document.” in Thomas W Benson, ed., American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 84.
Danielle Allen “Punctuating Happiness,” UPS Foundation Professor School of Social Science Institute for Advanced Study, 5. www.ias.edu/sites/default/files/sss/pdfs/Allen/punctuating-happiness-2_12_15.pdf.
Charles Biddle, Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia: 1883). Biddle’s autobiography was edited by his grandson, James S. Biddle. James thought his grandfather must have mistaken the date of the public reading, but Charles Biddle’s characterization of the crowd present on July 4 (as lacking the “respectable” members of society) clarifies that it was not the reading on July 8.
Though only ten years old in July, 1776, Anthony Morris may have been familiar with Timothy Matlack through family and business connections. The Matlacks and the Morris’s were brewers. Timothy’s half-brother was the brewer Reuben Haines. Rueben’s father-in-law was the glassmaker Caspar Wistar. Wistar was Anthony Morris’s grandfather. Anthony’s grandfather and great-grandfather on the Morris side were also brewers.
Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, 142–144. The wife of the descendant was a woman named Constantia Bache Abert, a great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin; her husband Charles Abert was a great-grandson of Timothy Matlack. The Aberts, who lived outside Washington D.C., owned the full-length portrait of Matlack by Charles Willson Peale, which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
A Collection of Papers Read Before the Bucks County Historical Society, Vol 2. (Doylestown, PA: Bucks County Historical Society, 1909), 77–80. George Piper was born on the Wissahickon River and likely lived in Philadelphia, where he later married. He was listed as a private, 10th Regiment, Pennsylvania Line in October 1776, and was commissioned ensign, 4th Battalion, Philadelphia militia in December 1776. Matlack and Piper served together in the Battle of Princeton. In 1778 he bought a tavern at the intersection of the old Easton and Durham roads (later called Pipersville). We know Matlack was a visitor because he “cut his name on the railing of the upper porch, which was still there when it was taken down in 1827.”
Marleen Barr, “Deborah Norris Logan, Feminist Criticism, and Identity Theory: Interpreting A Woman’s Diary Without the Danger of Separatism,” Biography, University of Hawaii Press, Vol. 8 No 1 (1985), 14.