Object of the Month

The Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston, 18 July 1776

Letter from Henry Alline to his brother and sister, 19 July 1776

Letter from Henry Alline to his brother and sister, 19 July 1776

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  • "Yesterday the Declaration for Independency was Published out of the Balcony of the Town House." In this letter to an unnamed brother and sister, Henry Alline, Jr. describes how the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Boston on 18 July 1776.

    Independence Declared

    In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress had adopted the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, and "published"--publicly announced--it the next day. Express riders carried copies of the first printing of the Declaration to Boston, arriving on 15 July. The Declaration was re-printed in a Salem newspaper, the American Gazette, the following day, and publicly proclaimed from the balcony of the Town House (now the Old State House) in Boston on 18 July.

    Henry Alline, Jr., who wrote this letter to a brother and sister (or possibly a brother- or sister-in-law) was a notary and clerk who resided in King Street, the main thoroughfare of colonial Boston that led from the waterfront to the Town House, the seat of the Massachusetts colonial government and, after the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776, the new Revolutionary government. While Alline's personal account of the reading of the Declaration is of great interest to us today, in his letter it comes half way down the second page, after he has addressed what was of even more importance to him and his family, the health of his children and other family and friends who recently had been inoculated against smallpox.

    Smallpox Inoculation

    The smallpox epidemic that would spread over most of North America and last throughout the Revolutionary War first appeared in Boston in 1774 and festered during the long siege of the British-occupied town, April 1775-March 1776. While smallpox inoculation--the insertion of live smallpox virus under the skin--had been widely known and practiced in Boston for more than fifty years, it remained controversial and dangerous. The Revolutionary government of Massachusetts forbade inoculation in favor of a strict quarantine, but lifted the ban a few days before news of the Declaration of Independence reached Boston. Unfortunately, the disease remained poorly understood and as Henry Alline's references to making his children "keep about, as the Doctrs. say it is necessary" indicate, people who had been inoculated moved about freely while they still were contagious. Abigail Adams, who, along with her children, had been recently inoculated in Boston also was in the crowd that witnessed the proclamation of Independence on 18 July; see the online presentation of the letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 21 July 1776.

    In addition to the accounts of Henry Alline and Abigail Adams, the Historical Society holds a third, less-detailed diary account of the proclamation of Independence in Boston by merchant John Rowe; see the online presentation of the diary entry by Rowe, dating from 18 July 1776. The Historical Society purchased the Henry Alline letter in 1987. As it is not part of a collection of personal or family papers, the Society has less information about Alline and his family than for other items in the MHS manuscript collection, but Alline lived on in Boston until his death in 1804, and three generations of his family served as registers of deeds for Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

    For Further Reading

    Declarations of Independence. Introduction by Pauline Maier. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003.

    Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

    First Boston City Directory (1789) Including Extensive Annotations by John Haven Dexter (1791-1876). Edited by Ann Smith Lainhart. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989.

    Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.

    Walsh, Michael J. "Contemporary Broadside Editions of the Declaration of Independence." Harvard Library Bulletin. Volume 3, Number 1 (Winter 1949), 31-43.

    See also "Focus on: Declaration of Independence", the July 2002 "From Our Cabinet" feature of the Massachusetts Historical Society website.


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