Wednesday, July 4, 2012

William Greenleaf reads the Declaration of Independence in 1776 Boston

While researching my 5th great grandfather, William Greenleaf (1725-1803) of Boston a few weeks ago, I stumbled across an interesting tidbit of information.  The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence of Boston took place 18 July 1776 from the balcony of Boston's Old State House or "Towne House".  Some accounts attribute this reading to Col. Thomas Crafts, who did in fact read the Declaration of Independence that day.  But the Declaration of Independence was also read by then Sheriff of Suffolk County, William Greenleaf, and repeated by Crafts, as Greenleaf reportedly spoke too softly to be heard by the crowd assembled.

I first found this account on J. L. Bell's Boston 1775 blog in the post, "Sheriff Greenleaf and Col. Crafts read the Declaration." [2] So I dug in to see what else I could find.

On 25 July 1776, the Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser reports:

"Thursday last, pursuant to the orders of the honourable Council, was proclaim'd from the Balcony of the State House in this town, the DECLARATION of the AMERICAN CONGRESS, absolving the United Colonies from their allegiance to the British Crown, and declaring them FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES. ...

At One o'Clock the Declaration was proclaimed by the Sheriff of the County of Suffolk, which was received with great Joy, expressed by three Huzzas from a great Concourse of People assembled ..."[3]

Bell's post mentions and quotes a letter by Daniel Greenleaf (1762-1853), William Greenleaf's son, published in the Boston Transcript on 2 Aug 1855, in which Daniel Greenleaf recollects his father reading the Declaration of Independence.  Bell states that Daniel Greenleaf wrote the letter in October of 1841, and given that Daniel died in 1853, the letter would had to have been written prior to its publication in the Boston Transcript.  As Daniel Greenleaf would have been several months shy of 14 years of age in July 1776, he might well remember the events of 18 July 1776.

Daniel Greenleaf's letter, as published in the Boston Transcript, states in part:

"The Declaration of Independence was read by William Greenleaf, (my father,) then sheriff. ... My father was so proud of that proclamation that he had the paper from which he read it framed and glassed and it hung over his parlor fireplace as long as he was a housekeeper.  As his voice was rather weak, he requested Colonel Crafts to act as his herald; they stood together at the front of the balcony, and my father read a sentence, which was immediately repeated by Crafts, and so continued to the end, when was the huzza, as mentioned." [4]

[1]  "In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, In General Congress Assembled."  The Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser, 18 July 1776, pg. 1.  Online, in "The Coming of the American Revolution," Massachusetts Historical Society ( : accessed 4 July 2012)

[2]  Bell, J. L. "Sheriff Greenleaf and Col. Crafts Read the Declaration," Boston 1775, 4 July 2007.  Online ( : accessed 4 July 2012)

[3]  Continental Journal (Boston, Mass.), 25 July 1776, pg. 2.  Online. Early American Newspaper Series 1, 1690-1876  (Newsbank). Accessed 3 July 2012.

[4]  "Reminiscences of an Old Bostonian," Boston Evening Transcript, 2 Aug 1855, pg. 1.  Online.  Google News ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012)


  1. Sarah,

    My name is Joshua Greenleaf and I am a direct descendant of William and Daniel. I came across your blog while googling the above story. I first learned of it in the Greenleaf Genealogy book compiled in the 1890's, which I have an original copy of. I would love to make contact with you and discuss the family.

    Joshua Greenleaf

  2. I'm a direct descendant as well, and am fascinated by the family's role in American history. Captain Stephen Greenleaf was one of the original nine purchasers of Nantucket Island. Rebecca Greenleaf, William's daughter, married Noah Webster. If you are also related to Elizabeth Gerrish (who married a Greenleaf), then you are related to all of the Presidents except McKinley, Queen Elizabeth, Charlemagne, Augustus Ceasar (first emperor of Rome), and Nebuchadnezzar, and Noah (NO JOKE).

  3. Thank you so much for this information. The story in our end of the family was always that William Greenleaf had read the proclamation, yet several sources that I consulted said it was somebody else. This explains what happened. I am a descendent of WG via his daughter Anna "Nancy" Greenleaf, who married William Cranch.