Baltimore History, Revolutionary War

Happy 29th of July! The Day that Baltimore Read Aloud the Declaration of Independency

Huh? You may be wondering: the declaration of—ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄʏ? Well, mass standardization of the English language had not quite yet taken hold by the 1770s, and believe it or not, Baltimoreans referred to their country’s de facto birth certificate as such.

Back in 1776, news traveled much slower than it does today. Though Continental Congress actually declared “ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄᴇ” from Great Britain on July 2nd 1776—which is the day that John Adams (1735-1826) thought future Americans would celebrate—the document listing Americans’ grievances with Kɪɴɢ Gᴇᴏʀɢᴇ III (1738-1820) and their reasons for declaring independence, was dated July 4th 1776. Word of Congress’s decision rippled outward from Philadelphia, with the central point of dissemination being the Pennsylvania State House, now justly known by a different name: ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄᴇ ʜᴀʟʟ. Several days later, on Monday, July 8th 1776, the president of Continental Congress—John Hancock (1737-1793)—wrote a letter to the Maryland Council of Safety in Annapolis, informing Marylanders of the congressional action:

Philadelphia July 8th 1776.


Altho’ it is not possible to foresee the consequences of Human Action, yet it is nevertheless a duty we owe ourselves & Posterity in all our Public Councils, to decide in the best manner we are able, and to trust the Event to that Being, who controuls both Causes and Events, so as to bring about his own determinations.
Impressed with this Sentiment, and at the same time fully convinced that our affairs may take a more favourable turn, the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve all connection between Great Britain and the American Colonies, and to declare them free and Independent States, as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed by Congress to transmit to you, and to request you will have it proclaimed in your Colony in the way you shall think most proper.
The important consequences to the American States from this Declaration of Independence, considered as the ground & foundation of a future Government will naturally suggest the propriety of proclaiming it in such a manner as that the People may be universally informed of it.

I have the Honour to be Gentlemen
Your most obedt and very hbl Sevt
John Hancock Prest

to the Maryland Council of Safety

The next day, Tuesday, July 9th 1776, the Declaration of Independence was published in full on page two of Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette; or the Baltimore General Advertiſer, in columns two and three. The document having been voted on, but not signed [ᴛʜᴇ ᴀᴄᴛᴜᴀʟ ᴅᴏᴄᴜᴍᴇɴᴛ ᴡᴀsɴ’ᴛ sɪɢɴᴇᴅ ᴜɴᴛɪʟ ᴀᴜɢᴜsᴛ 2ɴᴅ], the Gazette listed John Hancock as the lone signatory. While Hancock’s letter to the Maryland Council of Safety included an official copy of the Declaration as an enclosure, it is clear that John Dunlap (1747-1812) decided to publish the Declaration independently of Hancock’s correspondence. This is because Dunlap’s paper ran the Declaration under the following header: “P H I L A D E L P H I A, July 6.” In other words, Dunlap’s source for the information was two days older than Hancock’s letter. The notion that Dunlap could have gotten the news out so quickly is not surprising. After all, in addition to his printing office on Market-street in Baltimore Town, he had another office that was in Philadelphia [ᴄᴏɪɴᴄɪᴅᴇɴᴛᴀʟʟʏ, ᴀʟsᴏ ᴏɴ ᴍᴀʀᴋᴇᴛ-sᴛʀᴇᴇᴛ], where he published his senior newspaper—Dunlap’s Pennſylvania Packet; or the General Advertiſer, which (founded in 1771) predated his Maryland Gazette (founded in 1775) by four years.

1776 Dunlap Broadside

The Dunlap Broadside that belongs to the Library of Congress.

Dunlap was well established in Philadelphia, having gone there as a ten-year-old boy in 1757 to apprentice with his printer uncle, William Dunlap. By 1766, Uncle William had left the business in his hands—making the nephew a full-fledged printer at nineteen. Ten years later, with Continental Congress in session at the soon-to-be-called Independence Hall, Dunlap’s star rose even higher as he obtained the lucrative printing contract for the fledgling U.S. Government. With the congressional contract in hand, Dunlap’s sources regarding news streaming out of Congress were impeccable. Case in point: on the night of July 4th 1776, word of the Declaration came straight from John Hancock himself. He ordered Dunlap to print about 200 copies of the document on broadside—ɴᴏᴡ ᴋɴᴏᴡɴ ᴀs ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴜɴʟᴀᴘ ʙʀᴏᴀᴅsɪᴅᴇ. This was the first time the Declaration was ever committed to type, and of that original run, only twenty-six copies are known to exist. It was undoubtedly a Dunlap Broadside copy of the Declaration that Hancock enclosed with his letter addressed to the Maryland Council of Safety. So, knowing that Dunlap got word of the Declaration of Independence from Hancock, and on July 4th 1776 no less … when he ran the document in his Baltimore newspaper on July 9th 1776, his header could just as easily have read: “ʜᴀɴᴄᴏᴄᴋ ᴛᴏʟᴅ ᴍᴇ ᴛʜᴇ ɴᴇᴡs!”

That Dunlap was actively engaged as a printer in Baltimore Town while simultaneously maintaining operations in Philadelphia was no secret. The colophon at the bottom of page four in Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette even advertised the fact that he also published a Pennsylvanian newspaper: “B A L T I M O R E: Printed by JOHN DUNLAP at his Printing-Office in Mᴀʀᴋᴇᴛ-Sᴛʀᴇᴇᴛ, where Subſcriptions at Tᴇɴ Sʜɪʟʟɪɴɢs per Annum, Advertiſements, &c. are received for this Paper; alſo for the Pennſylvania Packet, and all manner of Printing Work done with the utmoſt Expedition.” The corresponding colophon on the bottom of the Pennſylvania Packet‘s fourth page noted that the physical printing of that paper was farmed out to the office of the Saturday Evening Mirror, at 23 S. Seventh-street in Philadelphia. This would suggest that Dunlap’s business in Philly had grown to such an extent that he was contracting at least some of his newspaper work out to other area printers.


George Washington ordered that the Declaration of Independence [ᴀ ᴅᴜɴʟᴀᴘ ʙʀᴏᴀᴅsɪᴅᴇ!] be read aloud to the Continental Army in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 9th 1776. Baltimoreans learned of that event one week later, in the Tuesday, July 16th 1776 edition of Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette, on the first column of page two—an excerpt of which appears here:

N E W – Y O R K,  July 11.

On Tueſday laſt, the Congreſs’s Declaration of the Independence of the United States of America, was read at the head of ſeveral Brigades in this city, with acclamations of Joy ; and, ’tis expected, will be declared in form by order of the Provincial Congreſs, in a few days.
Same day, in the evening, the ſtatue of King George the Third, on horſeback, in the Bowling Green, was taken down, broken into pieces, and its honour levelled with the daſt.

In the adjacent column, on the same page, news from Easton, Pennsylvania described their having received the Declaration, and publicly proclaimed it:

EASTON (Northampton county) July 8. This day the DECLARATION of INDEPENDANCY was received here, and proclaimed in the following order : The Colonel and all other field officers of the firſt battalion repaired to the court-houſe, the Light Infantry company marching their with drums beating, fifes playing, and the Standard (the device for which is the thirteen United Colonies) which was ordered to be diſplayed, and after that the Declaration was read aloud to a great number of ſpectators, who gave their hearty aſſent with three loud huzzas [ᴘʀᴏɴᴏᴜɴᴄᴇᴅ “ʜᴜᴢᴢᴀʏ”], and cried out Mᴀʏ Gᴏᴅ Lᴏɴɢ Pʀᴇsᴇʀᴠᴇ and ᴜɴɪᴛᴇ the Fʀᴇᴇ and Iɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴀɴᴛ Sᴛᴀᴛᴇs of Aᴍᴇʀɪᴄᴀ.

From the wording in that excerpt, it would seem as if Easton had a public reading of the document on the exact same day that it received it. Baltimoreans learning about the news from New-York and Easton may well have been asking themselves: ᴡᴀɪᴛ, ᴡʜᴇɴ ɪs ᴏᴜʀ ᴘᴜʙʟɪᴄ ʀᴇᴀᴅɪɴɢ? Oddly enough, despite receiving the Declaration and disseminating it via newspaper on July 9th 1776—Baltimore Town did not hold a public reading of the document until nearly three weeks later. The much-anticipated event took place on Monday, July 29th 1776, at the Baltimore County Courthouse.


The old Baltimore County Courthouse, which was erected in 1768 when Baltimore Town replaced Joppa Town as the County Seat of Government. It stood at the point where Calvert-Street dead-ended into the cliff that gave way to a roughly sixty-foot-straight drop to Jones’s Falls.

An account of the proceedings was published the following day in Dunlap’s Gazette, in the second column on page three:

B A L T I M O R E.

Yeſterday, by order of the Committee of this Town, the DECLARATION of the INDEPENDENCY of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA was read aloud at the Court-Houſe to a numerous and reſpectable body of Militia and the company of Artillery, and other principal inhabitants of this town and county, which was received with general applauſe and heart felt ſatisfaction : And at night the town was illuminated, and, at ſame time, the Effigy of our late King was carted through the town and committed to the flames amidſt the acclamations of many hundreds.—The juſt reward of a Tyrant.

Another account appeared a day later, Wednesday, July 31st 1776, in a rival paper: the Maryland Journal, and the Baltimore Advertiſer, on page two, column number one:

B A L T I M O R E.

On Monday laſt, at 12 o’Clock, the Dᴇᴄʟᴀʀᴀᴛɪᴏɴ of INDEPENDENCY was proclaimed at the Court Houſe in this Town, at the Head of the Independent and Artillery Companies, and the ſeveral Companies of Militia, to the great Joy and Satisfaction of the Audience, with a Diſcharge of Cannon, &c. and univerſal Acclamations for the Proſperity of the Fʀᴇᴇ Uɴɪᴛᴇᴅ STATES………In the Evening the Effigy, repreſenting the King of Great-Britain, was carted through the Town, to the no ſmall Mirth of the numerous Spectators, afterwards thrown into a Fire made for that Purpoſe. Thus may it fate with all Tyrants.

The wording in both of these accounts differs slightly, and both offer unique versions of the day’s proceedings. The array of militia & regular units under arms for the reading must have stood in the public square immediately to the south of the courthouse—near the intersection of Calvert-street and East-street [ᴍᴏᴅᴇʀɴ-ᴅᴀʏ Fᴀʏᴇᴛᴛᴇ-sᴛʀᴇᴇᴛ]—as the document was read from the steps. Exactly what kind of cannon was used for the “diſcharge” is anyone’s guess, but it likely belonged to Captain Nathaniel Smith’s Company of Matrosses out of Fort Whetstone [ɴᴏᴡ ᴋɴᴏᴡɴ ᴀs Fᴏʀᴛ MᴄHᴇɴʀʏ]. And the fire that consumed the effigy of Kɪɴɢ Gᴇᴏʀɢᴇ III most likely occurred in the same public square where the document was read, as it was spacious enough to accommodate such things.

Courthouse 1776

The building marked ‘J’ is the old Baltimore County Courthouse—the present-day location of which is occupied by the War of 1812 Battle Monument. [From A.P. Folie’s 1792 Map of Baltimore Town, LOC]

Newspapers did not provide the only written documentation of the event. A review of the minutes of the Baltimore County Committee of Observation offers an additional insight into the political climate of Baltimore Town, circa July of 1776:


At a Meeting of the Committee
July 29, 1776


This day, agreeable to the resolve of this Committee of the 22d instant, the Declaration of Independency was proclaimed at the Court-House by Mr. William Aisquith, (Mr. Christie being out of Town:) Captain Nathaniel Smith’s Company of Matrosses, Captain John Sterrett’s Company of Independents, Captain John Smith’s, Captain James Cox’s, Captain George Wells’s, and Captain William Richardson’s Companies being drawn up under arms on occasion. 

Though it may seem rather innocuous on the surface, the “ᴍʀ. ᴄʜʀɪsᴛɪᴇ ʙᴇɪɴɢ ᴏᴜᴛᴛᴀ ᴛᴏᴡɴ” line subtly hints at a more sinister subtext. John Thomas Scharf sheds light on page 147 of his 1874 history of the city, The Chronicles of Baltimore:

Mr. Robert Christie, Jr., who, as sheriff of the county, it had been supposed was the proper person to read the Declaration of Independence to the people at the court-house, refused to appear there for such a purpose. In consequence of this refusal on his part, threats had been made against him, which he deemed it prudent not to brave, and therefore he withdrew from the town. 

The Committee of Observation was not happy with the tension that these threats of violence induced, and feared that inaction on its part would lead to public mayhem. So the next day, it passed a resolution that clearly stated its position—as elaborated in the minutes:


At a Meeting of the Committee
July 30, 1776


The Chairman being informed by Mr. Robert Christie, Sheriff of this County, that he had reason to be apprehensive of violence being offered to him, the said Sheriff, on account of his not attending to read the Declaration of Independence on Monday last, agreeable to the desire of the Committee; and that from these apprehensions, he would be under the disagreeable necessity of retiring to the country, and withdrawing himself from the publick service; whereupon,
ResolvedThat the Committee do declare their utter disapprobation of all threats and violence being offered to any persons whatsoever, as contrary to the Resolves of Congress, and the sense of the Convention of this Province; that they conceive themselves bound to protect (as far as is in their power) the Civil Officers in the discharge of their duty; that they do expect of, and call upon every good citizen and friend to his country to assist them in their endeavors to preserve the peace and good order of society, and to prevent all riots and tumults, and personal abuse or violence to individuals; that the good people of Baltimore, having hitherto been so respectfully attentive to the Resolves of this Committee on all occasions, they flatter themselves that due regard will be paid to this recommendation.

Attest: Geo. Lux, Secretary.


Were William Aisquith standing today on the spot from which he read the Declaration of Independence to the citizens of Baltimore Town in 1776, this is more or less what he would see: the view looking south on Calvert-street from the location of the War of 1812 Battle Monument. [Photograph taken by the author of this article, on August 20th, 2013.]

William Aisquith not only took Christie’s place at the reading, but he took his public office as well. Christie had served as the Sheriff of Baltimore Country from 1774 to 1776, but Aisquith became Sheriff in 1777. Though they never came to pass, the threats aimed at Robert Christie Junr eerily foreshadowed a problem that tormented Baltimore all throughout the nineteenth century, and one that still haunts it to this day: the riotous, mob mentality, which caused later generations of Americans to defame Baltimore with its most shameful moniker, “ᴍᴏʙᴛᴏᴡɴ.”


While the Revolution occurred through spoken word for the unlettered masses of America, the educated classes also bore witness to a Revolution on paper. In this respect, John Dunlap led the charge on the front lines of Baltimore Town. In the same issue of his Gazette that described the public reading of the Declaration, he included a couple of well-placed adverts on the fourth page, just above the colophon. The first, was for a map of New-York that he was readying for the press:

In a few days will be ready for Sale by the Printer hereof (abſolutely neceſſary for every Officer under Marching orders for New-York.)
A ᴍᴀᴘ of New-York, Staten-Island, part of Long-Island, and New-Jerſey, in which will be delineated, the ſituation of the Britiſh Forces now on Staten-Island, alſo the different Batteries thrown up for the defence of Continental troops in thoſe parts. The Utility of ſuch a Map muſt appear obvious to every Officer who underſtands the nature of Actual Service.

The second was a plea to the local citizenry of Baltimore Town, for clean rags to keep a steady supply of paper on hand for his printing press:

L I N E N   R A G S.

Tʜᴇ higheſt price is given for clean Linen Rags, by Jᴏʜɴ Dᴜɴʟᴀᴘ, in Market Street, Baltimore. Who begs leave to inform the Public in general, and the good people of this town in particular, that the Paper Mills are idle for want of Rags; and of Conſequence, the Preſſes, the important vehicles of inſtruction and amuſement, muſt ſoon be reduced to the ſame unhappy ſituation.—We therefore flatter ourſelves, that this intimation of the languiſhing ſtate of ſo intereſting a manufacture will be ſufficient to prevail upon all careful Houſekeepers to ſave their RAGS and ſend them for ſale to


Both of these adverts paired nicely with a notice on the first page, which featured a plea of a different sort:

July 23d, 1776.


As an Apprentice for the Printing Busineſs, a Lad about 14 or 15 years of age, who can be well recommended—Enquire of the printer.

Just as the militia and regular forces needed recruits, printers did too. And just as the militia and regular forces needed supplies and ammunition, printers did too. This is how they fought their Revolution.

So if you are wondering how to celebrate this 29th of July, and how best to honor those who gave us the freedoms that we now enjoy, allow me to suggest this:

Do something … ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄʏ!