Another Worcester First: Independence Day 1776

John Hancock's DefianceAs we await the arrival of Hurricane Arthur on this dreary Independence Day, here’s my account of the very first community celebration of the newly signed Declaration of Independence—right here, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The document had been approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, but it took another week or more for broadsides with the text to reach communities throughout the colonies. News traveled slower in those days, and epithets were, by today’s standards, considerably milder. . . .

It was a day long remembered. On the Town Common, near the liberty pole, flags of the 13 colonies rippled in the breeze. Church bells chimed and drummers beat a rat-a-tat military cadence, enticing more Worcester patriots to join the festivities. Two days earlier, a sedate crowd had gathered near the green to hear Isaiah Thomas read the stirring words from the Old South Meeting House porch. But this Monday, July 15, 1776, was a day for celebrating—a day to rally for freedom and cheer for their new doctrine of liberty, so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence.

Joined by town selectmen and Worcester’s Committee of Correspondence—which for three years had been nurturing the seeds of rebellion—the crowd greeted the words of the Declaration with “repeated huzzas, firing of musketry and cannon, bonfires, and other demonstrations of joy,” according to an account that appeared the following week in Thomas’s newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy.

After incinerating the royal crest of arms that had “in former times decorated, but of late disgraced” the town courthouse, the crowd converged on a former Tory haven, the King’s Arms Tavern. There they drank two dozen toasts to their newfound freedom—including “[s]ore eyes to all tories, and a chestnut burr for an eye stone . . . [p]erpetual itching without the benefit of scratching” and defeat to all America’s enemies, and enduring freedom and independence for their new country “till the sun grows dim with age, and this earth returns to chaos.” Those incendiary words and deeds notwithstanding, the Spy reported, “The greatest decency and good order was observed, and at a suitable time each man returned to his respective home.”

—from Chapter Two of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest

Image Credit: “John Hancock’s Defiance: July 4, 1776,” by Currier & Ives, New York, c1876, Library of Congress Prints and Photography Division.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001

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