It was the breaking news to end all breaking news—the fledgling British colonies of North America were committing treason and declaring independence. But in an era long before smartphone push alerts, TV interruptions and Twitter, breaking news broke a lot slower. How slow, though? Last year, a Harvard University project mapped how quickly the Declaration of Independence spread through the colonies based on newspaper archives.
A fascinating animation breaks down the dissemination of the news. The full text of the Declaration of Independence was first published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6 in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress had been meeting to compose it. Other Philadelphia newspapers reprinted the document, including a German newspaper that translated it for the area's large immigrant population, in the following days. (The same German-language newspaper also holds bragging rights for being the first paper to report on the Declaration of Independence.)
Nearby Baltimore first read the Declaration soon after on July 9, and New York City residents learned of their newfound independence the following day. The news spread up the Eastern seaboard gradually, reaching Connecticut by July 12, Rhode Island by July 13, and Massachusetts and New Hampshire by July 16.
The news took longer to reach the southern colonies of Virginia and South Carolina. Newspapers in Williamsburg, then the capital of Virginia, didn't publish the Declaration until July 20 (with an excerpt published July 19). And it wasn't until August 2 that the South Carolina & American General Gazette became the only known newspaper in the state to publish the text. In comparison, by the second week of August, newspapers across the ocean in London were already printing news of the colonies declaring independence.
The infographic comes courtesy of the Declaration Resources Project, an ongoing effort by Harvard University professor Danielle Allen to educate people about the context and meaning of the Declaration of Independence in the 240 years since its signing. Part of this project includes compiling a database of every known printing of the document in the half century after 1776 to see how its presentation and even wording varied.
In the century following the signing of the Constitution, breaking news sped up significantly. The news of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, for example, shows how new technology had already changed the game—for some. A compilation of newspaper front pages on the website Reddit from the days following the April 14 evening shooting show the contrast. Telegraph lines already connected many major cities in America, so even morning newspapers in frontier cities like Nashville, Tennessee, and Cleveland, Ohio, were able to publish the news from Washington, D.C., the morning Lincoln was declared dead. Instantaneous communication allowed the New York Herald to publish seven separate editions over the course of 18 hours updating its readers on Lincoln's condition as he lay dying. Even in distant Sacramento, California, leaders received word early enough to call an afternoon meeting of citizens to discuss the news on April 15.
For towns away from the telegraph lines, however, the news moved in more slowly. Residents of the Montana Territory, for instance, didn't hear the news until more than two weeks after the assassination of their president.
"The details, which we present to our readers in this extra, constitute a chapter of horrors that neither history nor fiction can parallel," the Montana Post wrote breathlessly in its front-page article.
One more century later, the assassination of another president demonstrated how much technology had sewed together America. No longer reliant on the printed word, according to National Museum of American History curator Hal Wallace, Americans nationwide learned of the shooting and death of President John F. Kennedy minutes after it happened through television and radio.
"Today, most Americans expect to access a constant flow of information on demand," Wallace wrote. "The idea that news of a major event might take days or weeks to travel across the country seems a relic of the distant past."