The Declaration of Independence, read aloud, draws cheers

Re-eenactors portraying Col. John Nixon and the American militia arrive behind Independence Hall for the first public reading of the historic document announcing the formation of the original 13 American colonies and their independence from British rule.
Re-eenactors portraying Col. John Nixon and the American militia arrive behind Independence Hall for the first public reading of the historic document announcing the formation of the original 13 American colonies and their independence from British rule. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 10, 2012

More than 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was written, hearing it read aloud can still elicit huzzahs from an audience.

Hundreds gathered on Sunday outside Independence Hall to hear the annual re-enactment of Col. John Nixon making the first public reading of the historic document announcing the formation of the original 13 American colonies and their independence from British rule. Nixon was a merchant and official from Philadelphia who also served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Free to the public, the Declaration's reading is held every year at noon on July 8 and hosted by Independence National Historical Park.

"You can feel his emotion as he read that document," park ranger Jane Cowley said after Sunday's reading, which echoed through Independence Mall and ended just after 12:20 p.m. with ringing bells.

On July 8, 1776, four days after the Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress, Nixon made the first public reading outside the State House in Philadelphia, now known as Independence Hall, and the bells of the city rang in celebration into the night.

Sunday's re-enactment drew cheers of "freedom!" and "huzzah!" and, when British rule was mentioned, jeers of "tyranny" from rangers dressed in period clothing. Several spirited onlookers joined in with their own shouts, while others read along from free copies of the Declaration rangers were distributing.

Joe Auteri, 43, of Delaware County, has attended the event for eight years, calling the document's words "pretty powerful." On Sunday, he was accompanied by his wife, their three children, ages 6, 8 and 10, and some friends. Attending the reading is an important tradition for the family because it better conveys the importance of the document and the passion of those behind its creation, Auteri said.

"It's important to hear it because not many people will be able to read it and understand it," he said.

Then again, Auteri takes American history very seriously. He and the two friends he came with are also Masonic members of Colombia Lodge 91, founded in 1801 in what was then the State House. The group planned to spend the rest of the day in Philadelphia visiting historic sites, such as Christ Church Cemetery where Benjamin Franklin is buried.

Bill Ochester, who portrays Franklin for educational and historic events, attended Sunday's reading in 18th-century garb, although not to officially represent Franklin. A re-enactment attendee for about a decade, Ochester said seeing hundreds turn out to hear the Declaration read aloud is "heartwarming."

"It's a very powerful document," he said. "It's well-written; it's meant to be read aloud."

After the reading, Ochester talked with visitors, posed for pictures and spewed out historical facts, such as: The original public reading was scheduled for July 8 in order to allow its writers time to put their affairs in order should they be accused of treason, which they were committing, Ochester said.

In stopping to talk with Ochester, Rochelle Fellman, 63, a retired elementary school teacher from South Philadelphia, said she has wanted to come to the reading for many years. This year she finally made it and declared it better than anticipated.

"It brings tears to my eyes," Fellman said. "We don't realize how fabulous our freedom is."


Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-5626 or dmcbride@philly.com.

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