July 8, 2022

The First Public Reading of the Declaration of Independence

The First Public Reading of the Declaration of Independence

July 8, 1776. Colonel John Nixon gives the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, spreading word that the American colonies have declared themselves free from British rule.


Cold Open - Paul Revere rides to Manhattan

It’s May 1774 on a road in the Province of New York; one year before the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.

On a dark night, Boston silversmith Paul Revere slows his horse to a trot to give the animal a break. Paul is exhausted, too, and his body aches. He’s been riding all day, but he has an important message to deliver to the city leaders of Manhattan; so he takes a breath, musters the resolve to continue, and pushes on.

Britain has recently passed the Boston Port Act. The law closed the port of Boston and demanded that the city pay for the large amount of tea its residents dumped into the Harbor during the so-called “Boston Tea Party”. Some members of the British Parliament believe the Port Act will serve as a warning to other American colonial cities and stifle further talks of rebellion. But this evening, Paul is riding long and hard to rally those cities to Boston’s cause.

Soon, Paul hears the water of the Harlem River. His destination lies not far on the other side. Paul gives his horse a tap with his heels.

Paul’s horse trots across King’s Bridge. Paul is close to the end of the day’s journey. So he pushes his horse to ride just a little further.

But as Paul approaches a bustling Manhattan street, he sees a local constable patrolling the area. Paul’s hands tense on the reins.

He worries that local constables might be on the side of the British; he doesn’t want a run-in with the law. Paul thinks about riding off in the opposite direction, leaving the constable in the dust. But instead… Paul just brings his horse to a stop, and dismounts…

He walks his horse along the road as if he’s in no hurry at all. Paul passes the constable and gives a friendly wave. And when he’s far enough away, he gets back on his horse, exhales a sigh of relief, and rides off again to deliver his message.

Paul Revere uses his time in Manhattan to inform city leaders of the Boston Port Act. Paul asks New York to lend their support, saying that, united, the colonies can stand up to Britain’s growing tyranny.

And while New York’s leaders debate their response, Paul gets back on his horse and rides for Philadelphia, the busiest port city in the American colonies. Paul shares his message with officials there just as he did in Manhattan. He makes it clear that without Philadelphia's help, Boston cannot stand up to the despotism of Britain’s king, George III.

After hearing Paul’s message, one wealthy Philadelphia shipping merchant will stir up support for Boston. John Nixon will call for the Colonies to break with Britain. His actions and leadership in the following months will inspire city officials to choose him to deliver the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8th, 1776.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 8th, 1776: “The First Public Reading of the Declaration of Independence”.

Act One: John joins the fight against Britain

It’s May 20th, 1774 at the City Tavern in Philadelphia; shortly after Paul Revere delivered his message about the Boston Port Act.

Philadelphia merchant John Nixon sits in the tavern among other city leaders. He sips a drink and listens to the men discuss the details of the Port Act. John is growing concerned. He worries that if Britain can close Boston Harbor, there’s nothing stopping them from halting trade in the Port of Philadelphia. And that would hurt John’s business, but more importantly, it would devastate many working-class Philadelphians.

John’s run his family’s successful shipping company for years. He’s confident he could survive the financial strain from a temporary port closing, but he can’t say the same for the dock workers, sailors, and countless others who make their living from maritime trade. John wants to protect Philadelphia’s port, and its people, from Boston Harbor’s fate.

So in City Tavern, John finishes his drink and listens as the frustrated leaders argue about what steps they should take. Everyone wants to keep the Port of Philadelphia open for business. But John hears two very different ideas on how to accomplish that. Some say Philadelphians need to distance themselves from Boston and make a show of loyalty to the British Crown. But others believe the only way to stop Britain from imposing their will on Philadelphia, and cities throughout the colonies is to side with Boston.

After a lengthy debate, John finally weighs in. He argues that the time for loyalty has passed and that the only way to guarantee that people in Philadelphia can thrive is to challenge what he sees as Britain’s tyranny against the American colonies.

But everyone involved understands that the decision they make could have major consequences. John and his fellow leaders realize that speaking out against an act of British Parliament will likely be viewed as open rebellion. Some in the meeting still aren’t willing to take that step, so the night ends in a stalemate.

But before everyone parts, Philadelphia’s leaders create a small committee that will make the final decision regarding the Boston Port Act. John is part of the committee, and he doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.

In the days to come, as committee debates begin, John and others speak passionately about their reasons for supporting Boston. They argue that if they acquiesce to the Port Act, they will open the door for the British to inflict more unjust taxes on the colonies and to take even more control of colonial trade. In the end, their arguments work. The majority of the committee comes to an agreement, and they decide to send a letter to Boston expressing Philadelphia’s support.

But John worries that a letter is useless if they don’t take action to back it up. If the British do see colonial support for Boston as an act of rebellion, John believes that the threat of rebellion should be real. So soon, he starts to think that the only way to truly stand up against the British is to call for independence and start a revolution.

John isn’t alone in his thinking. As he and the committee speak to other colonial leaders, it's clear that the desire for independence is growing. But these leaders understand that a call for independence will most likely result in war. If that happens, John and his fellow committee members want a strong colonial government in place for the potentially difficult times ahead. So they join with leaders from across the colonies to ask for the formation of a Continental Congress, a government body separate from Britain, to represent and lead the people of the colonies.

In fall of 1774, the First Continental Congress meets. And as John and others predicted, many in the British government view this as a blatant act of rebellion. In April of 1775, the American Revolutionary War begins at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. And when word of the skirmish reaches Philadelphia, John puts aside city politics and his shipping business and joins the fight.

John served in the military in the past, so he enters the Continental Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. John is assigned to a regiment of other wealthy men jokingly called the “Silk Stockings.” But John’s never let his wealth or status stand in the way of hard work.

As Britain prepares to escalate their military presence in the colonies, John helps lead his regiment in preparation for a potential British invasion of Philadelphia. John’s men respect and trust him. So as the likelihood of invasion increases, John is put in command of defenses on the Delaware River.

And then in June of 1776, John and his men will focus on shoring up Philadelphia’s defenses. But while John commits his time to the military effort, some of the colonies’ most prominent leaders will work to achieve American independence through political means. Still, before long, they will look back to John to share their message with the people.

Act Two: Creating the Declaration of Independence

It’s June 7th, 1776 outside the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia.

Virginia politician Richard Henry Lee pulls a black satin glove out of his pocket and slides it onto his left hand. Richard lost four fingers in a hunting accident. And he always covers up his hand when he gives speeches. Today, Richard is about to give the most important speech of his life.

For the past month, Richard has served as a Virginia Delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and he’s grown more frustrated with each passing day. As war rages between the American colonies and Britain, some delegates in the Continental Congress continue to push for reconciliation and voice their allegiance to King George III. Richard has had enough of that talk. He believes appeasing King George will only lead to the destruction and subjugation of the colonies. The war has already started, and Richard wants to back up the fight with strong political action. So he’s about to put forth a resolution that declares American independence.

Soon, Richard walks into the State House and makes his way to the meeting room. Richard feels the weight of the moment. He’s certain that his public call for independence will get him executed for treason. But Richard reminds himself that risking his life is worth it for the cause of colonial freedom.

Soon after the meeting begins, Richard takes the floor. He looks out over the room, and calmly says, “These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states” free from “allegiance to the British Crown.” Richard proceeds to present a resolution that officially declares independence from Britain.

When Richard finishes speaking, Massachusetts delegate John Adams quickly seconds the resolution. And then an argument breaks out. Some delegates want to leave the door open for the colonies to remain part of Britain. But Richard, Adams, and others firmly plead their case.

By the end of the day, the majority of the Continental Congress sides with Richard, but many say they cannot simply declare independence; they must first create a document, one that lays out their reasons for breaking with Britain. They want people to understand why they’re making such a momentous decision, and they want to win the hearts and minds of those who might fear revolution, and who still have ties to Britain.

Days later, the Continental Congress forms a committee to write the Declaration of Independence. Richard wants to be a part of the committee, but he receives word that his wife has fallen ill, so he returns home to Virginia.

With Richard gone, the Continental Congress turns to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to help guide the process. And Franklin and Adams quickly look to the man who many believe is the most gifted writer among them: Virginia Delegate Thomas Jefferson.

On June 11th, 1776, Jefferson assumes principal writing duties for the Declaration of Independence. For over two weeks, Jefferson works in the cramped room he’s staying in to craft a message that speaks to what he calls the “American mind.”

Jefferson understands the importance of what he’s doing. But luckily, he’s never lacked self-confidence. Jefferson believes he can create a work that makes the colonies’ political motives clear. He sets out to define the purpose of government, discuss the concept of natural rights, and catalog the American Colonies’ grievances with Britain. But Jefferson also wants to inspire people to see that independence is the only way for the colonies to prosper now and for generations to come.

Over the course of days, Jefferson wears down the floors in his room by pacing back and forth, desperately searching for the right words. And eventually, the Declaration starts to take shape. Jefferson draws on the work of English Philosopher John Locke, the French Enlightenment, and his home state of Virginia’s own Declaration of Rights. And soon, Jefferson is ready to share the fruits of his labor.

Jefferson and the committee present the work to the Continental Congress. And on July 4th, 1776, the delegates officially adopt and print the Declaration of Independence. But many inside the Pennsylvania State House feel the Declaration will only have true power when it reaches the people.

Many members of the Congress understand that the concept of breaking from Britain permanently will frighten many colonials. But they are confident that if they can lay out their reasons directly to the masses, the people will ultimately side with them. And there's no better way to start than having the Declaration read aloud in Philadelphia by one of the city’s native sons. So, the Continental Congress asks a local official to find the right person to perform the reading. Someone the people know and admire. Someone with gravitas.

That local official will turn to a man who is widely respected by the people of Philadelphia, and who played an integral part in the earliest stages of Philadelphia’s move toward independence. On July 8th, 1776, John Nixon will stand before a crowd of his fellow Philadelphians, read the Declaration, and make the case for independence.

Act Three: The public reading

It’s noon on July 8th, 1776 at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia.

Inside, John Nixon stands with several Continental Army soldiers. He listens to the sound of bells ringing out through the city; alerting the people that his address is about to begin.

John is honored that he’s been chosen to deliver the first public reading of this historic document, but he’s also nervous. He wants to do the words justice, and he wants to inspire his fellow Philadelphians.

Soon, the State House doors open, and soldiers escort John outside. John feels the warm sun on his face as he steps onto a platform in the State House yard. A large crowd of citizens has gathered to hear him read. And as he looks out beyond the yard, he sees the streets packed with onlookers. John takes a breath and then reads the opening words.

“When in the Course of human events… it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another… and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

At this, John hears cheers and shouts of “huzzah!” from the crowd as the bells continue to ring. John’s confidence grows as he continues: “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.”

Another chorus of cheers erupts from the crowd. As John finishes his reading, word spreads through the city that the American Colonies have declared themselves free from British rule.


Over time, John’s reading on July 8th will be overshadowed by the annual Independence Day festivities held on July 4th. But for the people of Philadelphia, the event remains a storied part of their city’s history. Each year, people gather outside the State House, now called Independence Hall, to watch a reenactor of John Nixon's reading.

Men like Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin are forever linked to the birth of the United States. But it was Philadelphia merchant John Nixon who first brought their words to life and inspired the people of his city to revolution, when he gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8th, 1776.


Next on History Daily. July 11th, 1833: An Australian Aboriginal warrior named Yagan is murdered by colonists after leading a war of resistance against British settlers.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.