July 8, 1776, was a warm, sunny day in Philadelphia, and as the hour of noon approached, people began to gather in the statehouse yard. Residents mingled with others who had traveled from the surrounding countryside. Although one observer commented, “There were few respectable people among them,” those present included Mayor Samuel Powel, other city officials, and some members of the Continental Congress. As the yard began to fill, the people waited patiently, their eyes occasionally seeking the platform of the crudely constructed structure erected in 1769 for observing the transit of Venus.
The crowd had become restless when, shortly after twelve, Philadelphia’s sheriff, William Dewees, arrived and climbed the observatory stairs followed by his acting deputy, Col. John Nixon. As Dewees approached the railing and prepared to speak, the people quieted. “Under the authority of the Continental Congress and by order of the Committee of Safety,” he began, “I proclaim a declaration of independence.” Colonel Nixon then stepped forward and proceeded to read the document.
The people listened attentively as he read, and when he had finished, they demonstrated their approbation with three hearty huzzahs. There was little comment as the crowd dispersed. Some followed the speakers to the courthouse, where the document was again read, and then observed as the king’s arms were removed first from the courthouse and then from the statehouse. Others made their way to Armitage s tavern to while away a few hours. For most of them the Declaration was not new, for it had been published in the Philadelphia newspapers two days earlier and again that morning.
It was not until evening that the city properly celebrated the momentous decision that had been announced that day. It was a pleasant night, the sky filled with stars, and great bonfires were lighted throughout the city. The arms of King George III were taken out to the commons, placed on a pile of casks, and burned as the crowd watched and cheered. All through the night the bells of the churches tolled, reminding the people that they had been witnesses to the beginning of a new era in American history.