This July 4, Americans all across the country will celebrate the 240th anniversary of their country’s declaration of independence from British rule – with noisy parades, marching bands, barbecue parties and fireworks.
But at the Newseum building in downtown Washington, there’s another, quieter celebration going on.
Reporting the revolution
The museum, dedicated to news and journalism, just opened “1776 — Breaking News: Independence.” The exhibit features one of only 19 known copies of the July 6, 1776, edition of The Pennsylvania Evening Post, the first newspaper to publish the newly adopted Declaration of Independence.
“This extraordinary 240-year-old newspaper shows the Declaration of Independence as Americans first saw it – as front page news,” says Cathy Trost, senior vice president of exhibits and programs at the Newseum.
In 1776, there were no television sets, computers or digital devices, as Patty Rhule, the exhibit development director points out. "Today we get news over our Facebook feeds or on Twitter or Instagram or on the radio or on television. Back then, newspapers were it. This is the way ideas were debated and discussed, where people argued pro or con to leave Great Britain."
All four pages of The Pennsylvania Evening Post are on display, along with other pages of the newspaper that offer a glimpse into the everyday life of Philadelphians in the 18th century. Among the items listed for sale in advertisements, for example, are sugar, spirits and very fine hay "of this year’s growth." Another listing offers a $2 reward for the safe return of a 5-year-old brown horse that had strayed from its owner’s pasture.
Interactive kiosks allow visitors to zoom in and explore the newspaper in high definition.
Telling the news in graphic detail
In addition to the historic newspaper, large, illustrated panels around the gallery use the format of a graphic novel to tell the story of how and why delegates from the 13 American colonies gathered in Philadelphia to break the bonds of British rule and forge a new nation.
"The words and images of America’s revolution come alive in this exhibit in dramatic graphic novel form to tell the story of how the colonial press fanned the flames and spread the news of the fight for freedom," Trost says.
And a Newseum-produced video features original, animated illustrations and interviews with journalist Sebastian Junger, political commentator S.E. Cupp and comedian Lewis Black.
One video segment is about Thomas Paine, a Founding Father who published a pamphlet called "Common Sense," presenting to his fellow colonists his arguments for American independence.
In another segment, Black explains how Benjamin Towne published The Pennsylvania Evening Post three times a week "in a town full of weeklies." "His dream," narrates Black, "was to create America's first daily."
Rhule says the exhibit ties in perfectly with the mission of the Newseum, which is "to champion, explain and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment. So we want people to understand why it's important that we have free expression here, why it's important that we have a free press here, because without a free press, there pretty much wouldn’t have been independence."