Loudoun’s First Reading of the Declaration of Independence Celebrated

By Nancy Spannaus

The first official reading of the Declaration of Independence in Loudoun County, which took place on the steps of the old County Courthouse on August 12, 1776, was commemorated this past August 13. The event was sponsored by the Sgt. Maj. John Champe Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), and featured a reading of the full Declaration, as well as a Color Guard and wreath presentations by various SAR and DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) chapters.

Among the readers were two members of the Lovettsville Historical Society, Vice-President Edward Spannaus (who is also president of the Sergeant Lawrence Everhart Chapter of the SAR), and his wife and local historian Nancy Spannaus.

Lovettsville was also represented with a replica of the Liberty Bell, which had been donated for the occasion by local businessman Warner Workman. The bell, made to one-third scale of the original, was rung after the reading of each section of the Declaration.

Why did the original reading take place so long after the Congress’s final approval of the Declaration on July 4? Some background is required.

A Long-Awaited Event

Virginians had played a leading role in the momentous decision by the colonies to declare themselves an independent state. On June 7, northern Virginian Richard Henry Lee, acting under orders from the Virginia Convention, had submitted a resolution “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

That set into motion two processes: 1) the establishment of a committee of five to draft a declaration, and 2) a several-week period of mobilization/consultation within the colonies to determine whether the population was prepared to support this radical move. (See The Fight Behind the Declaration.)

Of course, Virginian Thomas Jefferson is universally acclaimed as the author of the Declaration itself. His text owes much to the Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason, another prominent Virginian. It should be noted, however, that Jefferson’s draft was edited (and cut down) by his four colleagues on the Committee, which included our premier Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, as the Continental Congress as a whole.

On July 2, Lee’s resolution was finally passed; an edited version of the Declaration was approved two days later, on July 4. It was at that point that the document began to be made public, a crucial element in rallying public support for the War of Independence already underway. An estimated 200 copies were immediately printed in the form of what’s known as the Dunlap Broadside (without the delegates’ signatures).

There is evidence that the first public reading occurred in Philadelphia on July 4; a more official ceremony occurred July 8 in that city (among others). And pursuant to the order of the Congress, a version of the document had been sent throughout the colonies, with the order that it be read to the troops. The reading in New York City occurred on July 9, leading the exuberant crowd to move from City Hall Park to Bowling Green, where they toppled the state of King George.

In Virginia, the Declaration was officially announced in Williamsburg, then the seat of government, on July 25. The Burgesses ordered that sheriffs of all the state’s counties make official proclamations of the document from the steps of their Courthouses. According to some sources, Loudoun was the first County to comply. The Declaration was read here on Aug. 12, 1776 by Sheriff Philip Noland.

This Year’s Commemoration

Kenneth Bonner of the Sgt. Major John Champe Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, chaired the event at the “Spirit of Loudoun” Revolutionary War Monument on the grounds of the Loudoun County Courthouse on August 13.

This reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds received broad support. Participating with the John Champe chapter were the Colonel James Wood II (CJWII), Fairfax Resolves (FR), George Mason (GM) and Sgt Lawrence Everhart (Maryland) SAR Chapters; the Ketoctin, Lanes Mill, Mary Hemings Bell and Elizabeth McIntosh Hammill DAR Chapters, and the Rev John Marks Society of the Children of the American Revolution.

Dignitaries included The Honorable Kelly Burk, Mayor of Leesburg, and Peter Davenport, Vice President General, Atlantic Middle States District, SAR. Ken Bonner, President of the Sgt Maj John Champe Chapter was the emcee, with Barry Schwoerer leading the presentation of wreaths and the reading of the Declaration.

Eric Larson, head of the  Historic Records Division of the County Clerk’s Office, was also present with a table displaying various historic court documents. Among these was a page from the Court’s Order Book for August 12, 1776. Included was a record that Josias Clapham, George West, Francis Peyton, Thomas Lewis, and Samuel Love had been given the official Oath as Justices for Loudoun County – now part of the new United States of America. The Order Book also reported that “The Declaration of Independency by the Honorable Congress was read at the Courthouse Door by the Sheriff pursuant to an Order of the Governor and Council of Virginia.