Jul 9, 2006 — Continental Army Capt. Francis Wade of Delaware and one Dr. Young accompanied James Smith to York Town on the evening of July 6, 1776.

The three men had traveled from the bustling city of Philadelphia to glean the public's reaction to the reading of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

"I do not believe that the majority, men and women," diarist John Adlum of York County later wrote, "knew what independence meant."

Four militia companies gathered in York Town's Centre Square, Adlum wrote, joined by 300 to 400 old men, women and boys. The women, mainly Germans, looked on with as much interest as the men.

Wade and Young made short speeches, followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Smith briefed the audience on the advantages of independence and concluded by throwing his hat into the air, cheering for liberty and independence.

Those gathered did the same.

* * *

When James Smith and other delegates to the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, they created work for James Smith and other members of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention.

He served as a delegate to the two bodies, possible because both met in the State House in Philadelphia.

Now that America had separated from Britain, each state needed a constitution for governance. King George III was no longer the authority.


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Throughout the Philadelphia summer of 1776, Smith and a handful of other delegates from York County worked with representatives from other counties on such a framework. In late September, they put it in place with a call for a November election of a General Assembly.

With Smith's signature affixed, Pennsylvania now could point to a governing document. Local and county governments, in turn, had to reorganize from scratch under the authority of this constitution.

But over time, some Pennsylvanians found the document created a domineering government that reminded them of the Crown.

* * *

On his July 6 trip to York Town, James Smith carried with him a printed copy of the Declaration, called the Dunlap Broadside, taking the name of its pressman.

The document bore only two signatures, that of Congress' President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson.

The engrossed version, in the familiar beautiful handwriting, was not ready for signing until early August.

Smith probably penned his name to that handwritten Declaration on Aug. 2, when most signed their John Hancocks.

Until Jan. 18, 1777, the names of the signers, other than the actual John Hancock, were not generally known for fear of reprisal. Emboldened by Continental Army victories in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Congress ordered a second printing of the Declaration.

A copy of the newly minted Goddard Broadside was sent to each state, and the names of James Smith and other signers became widely known.

* * *

James Smith's trip to York Town with the Declaration paid off. Adlum was wrong - residents did understand what independence meant.

The reading of the Declaration inspired the folks of York Town and the surrounding county. A call went out for the militia to march to the Continental Army's camp in New York, and the ranks quickly filled.

With companies of county men marching to join the Continental Army, York Town became a community of men older than 50, women and children.

Older men filled in positions on local groups that supported the war effort. Guards stayed with them day and night to provide security against suspected Tory plots.

For moments in July 1776, the town lay quiet. Shops closed. Business stood still.

"How many prayers and tears will now be brought before the Lord," the Rev. George Neisser, pastor of the Moravian Church, wrote in his diary, "by parents for their children, by children for their parents, by wives for their husbands."

* * *

The crossroads town of York would remain desolate only for a time.

Within a year, the town teemed with new life. The British army chased America's founders from the State House in Philadelphia to the Court House in remote York Town.

The wide Susquehanna River flowed between America's most wanted and the redcoats when the Continental Congress convened for the first time in York Town on Sept. 30, 1777. James Smith and 25 other signers of the Declaration would walk the town's streets and meet in its Centre Square courthouse for the next nine months.

They brought with them America's important papers, including probably the Declaration of Independence.

There, they would convene, debate and eventually adopt another document that would complement the Declaration - the Articles of Confederation, America's first framework of government.

The infant nation was just learning to walk.

James McClure is editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News. He has written five books on York County history. To contact him, call 771-2000, fax 771-2005, e-mail jem@ydr.com or write 1891 Loucks Road, York, 17408. Also, see his blog "York Town Square" at yorkblog.com.