THE LIFE AND DEATH OF AN URBAN SCHOOL – JAMAICA HIGH SCHOOL

Why was Jamaica High School closed down?

1981.CREDITILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY; PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIC DELUCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX; JACKSON KRULE (TOP-LEFT)

Jamaica High SchoolThe Jamaica High School building last year and, at right, in 1981.CREDITILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY; PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIC DELUCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX; JACKSON KRULE (TOP-LEFT)


Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States. For most of its history, it occupied a majestic Georgian Revival building on Gothic Drive, designed in the nineteen-twenties by William H. Gompert, who had begun his career at McKim, Mead & White. With east and west wings, granite columns, and an elaborate bell tower, the building looked like a state capitol that had been dropped into the middle of a residential neighborhood; it sat on the crest of a hill so imposing that planners would have been guilty of pretense had it housed anything other than a public institution.

One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony. Accompanying the festivities was the traditional graduation boilerplate—about life transitions and rising to new challenges—but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students. After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.

The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty per cent. Accordingly, the department had begun to “co-locate” four newly created “small schools” in the old building. Advocates argue that small schools can best resolve many of the ills associated with urban education, but the reorganization produced a logistical problem. The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself, both figuratively and literally, pushed out.

Underscoring the indignities that attended the school’s last days was a difficult irony: for much of its time, Jamaica was a gemstone of the city’s public-education system. In 1981, the schools chancellor, Frank Macchiarola, decided to take on the additional role of an interim high-school principal, in order to better appreciate the daily demands of school administration. He chose Jamaica, and was roundly criticized for picking such an easy school to lead. Four years later, the U.S. Department of Education named it one of the most outstanding public secondary schools in the nation. Alumni include Stephen Jay Gould, Attorney General John Mitchell, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Walter O’Malley, Paul Bowles, and three winners of the Pulitzer Prize: Gunther Schuller, Art Buchwald, and Alan Dugan. Bob Beamon, who set a world record for the long jump in the 1968 Olympics, graduated with the class of ’65. The school’s closure felt less like the shuttering of a perennial emblem of stagnation than like the erasure of a once great institution that had somehow ceased to be so.

Jamaica had become an institution of the type that has vexed city policymakers and educators: one charged with serving a majority-minority student body, most of whose members qualified as poor, and whose record was defined by chronic underachievement and academic failure. Even so, word of the school’s closure angered students and their families, the community, and alumni. I was among them—I graduated with the class of ’87—and for me, as for many former students, the school was a figment of recollection, frozen in its academic glory. George Vecsey, the former Times sports columnist and a member of the class of ’56, accused Joel Klein, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s schools chancellor, of “cooking the books,” to make schools slated for closure appear worse than they were, and compared the Department of Education’s closure policies to the nihilism of Pol Pot. Vecsey later apologized for having slighted the suffering of Cambodia, but he held to his contention that Klein ruled by dictatorial fiat. He wrote, in a blog, “The city destroyed a piece of history because of its own failure.”

There are two broadly competing narratives about school closure. The one commonly told by teachers, students, and many parents at underperforming schools centers on a lack of financial and material resources, which insures that the schools will be unable to meet even minimum standards. Strongly connected to this version is a belief that closure functions as a kind of veiled union-busting: shutting a school allows reformers to sidestep contracts and remove long-term teachers.

Reformers view closure as a necessary corrective to what they see as bloated bureaucracies, inept teachers, and unaccountable unions. They argue that urban schools are often too large to give students the attention they need. In 2000, the Gates Foundation began funding education reform, with an emphasis on reducing school size. Nine years later, in an annual newsletter, the foundation reported that its efforts had not met with significant success, particularly with schools “that did not take radical steps to change the culture, such as allowing the principal to pick the team of teachers or change the curriculum.” The foundation also said that it “had less success trying to change an existing school than helping to create a new school.” The reform movement nationwide increasingly saw closure and the creation of new institutions—as opposed to funding and reorganizing existing schools—as the way forward.

During the nineteen-forties, in a series of landmark tests conducted around the country, the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark demonstrated that black children associated virtue and intelligence with whiteness, and had correspondingly internalized racist stereotypes of inferiority. Robert Carter, an attorney with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, heard of the Clarks’ work and brought it to the attention of Thurgood Marshall, who was then the legal fund’s director-counsel. Marshall made the Clarks’ findings central to the argument for school desegregation in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. The decision made Kenneth Clark famous (while largely overlooking his wife’s role in structuring the experiment). Clark, who had grown up in Harlem and was a professor at the City College of New York, then turned his attention to the city government, which, he charged, had fostered segregation in the schools.

Arthur Levitt, then the president of the New York City Board of Education, responded that the schools merely reflected residential patterns: children who attended overwhelmingly black schools lived in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. A Commission on Integration was set up to examine the issue, with Clark as one of the commissioners, and Levitt as co-chair, and it issued recommendations, which were never quite translated into policy. (Clark resigned, but continued to push for integration throughout his career.) In 1959, the Board of Education experimented by sending four hundred students from overcrowded black schools in Brooklyn to under-attended white schools in the Ridgewood and Glendale sections of Queens. The move was met with rancorous opposition and a brief boycott that anticipated the riotous response to busing in the seventies.

In 1949, John Ward, an African-American student whose family had migrated to New York from Virginia after the Second World War, enrolled at the school. Ward’s father was a bus mechanic, and his mother worked as a domestic; between them, they earned enough to buy a home in Jamaica. Ward recalls the area as a place where Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, African-Americans, and Jews lived in peaceful proximity. His house was not far from the grocery store that Mario Cuomo’s parents owned, and Ward, who played baseball as a boy, remembers the future governor from games in the neighborhood sandlots. The area had not yet entirely shaken its rural roots. “There were still people farming there,” Ward told me. “I remember seeing people butcher hogs on Linden Boulevard in the forties and fifties.”

Ward wanted to be a teacher, but Woodrow Wilson, the high school that most blacks in the area attended, was a vocational trade school. So he applied to Jamaica, which had acquired a reputation as one of the city’s strongest academic high schools. Ward initially found the rigor daunting. “My first semester, I failed about three major classes,” he told me. “My father said, ‘If you’re not going to work at school, you’ll have to get a job.’ ” Ward studied hard and spent an extra semester earning enough academic credits to apply to college. He played baseball well enough to be selected for the All-City team in 1954, his senior year. “I don’t really recall there being much racial tension,” he said of the school. “The blacks mostly hung out with other black students, but, being an athlete, I interacted with a lot more of the white students.” For a few years in the fifties, Jamaica’s integrated athletics teams, with their winning records, were a point of pride for the school. In 1954, Ward was elected the school’s first black class president.

He was accepted at Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition, so he played D-League baseball for a few years, then applied to the New York City police academy, and, in 1960, became one of the first black members of the motorcycle corps. Of the more than three hundred graduates in Ward’s police-academy class, fewer than two dozen were African-American. In 1974, he was promoted to a plainclothes unit working out of the 114th Precinct. “Out of sixteen guys, I was the black on the street-crimes unit,” he told me. His career on the force was, at least demographically, a replay of his experiences at Jamaica, and Ward later credited the school with giving him not only an excellent education but also the skills that allowed him to navigate primarily white environments. “Jamaica being integrated in the fifties was something unusual,” he told me. “But it was also a place where I felt I belonged.”

South Jamaica’s black population continued to grow in the fifties and sixties, though not all of it was as economically stable as Ward’s family. In 1947, when the Olympian Bob Beamon was still a baby, his mother died, and he was eventually sent to live with a guardian in a rough part of the neighborhood. After a troubled childhood and a brush with juvenile court, which resulted in his being sent to a remedial, “600” school, Beamon became convinced that if he could get into Jamaica he could turn his life around. Four decades later, in a memoir, “The Man Who Could Fly,” he wrote of the school in nearly ecclesiastical terms:

Mr. Louis Schuker, the principal at Jamaica High, had a long talk with me and Coach Ellis. He said the odds of a 600 school student making it in a regular school environment were next to zero. His admonition to me was reminiscent of the one given by the judge who had sentenced me to the 600 school.

“Beamon, any trouble out of you and you are out of here,” Mr. Schuker said. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered firmly and clearly. I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere but Jamaica High. This was where I wanted to be. This was where I belonged.

It’s easy to wax idealist about the happy spaces of one’s childhood, but in Beamon’s case the assessment can’t be so easily dismissed. He traced his desire to compete in the Olympics to a visit that the track-and-field star Wilma Rudolph, a triple gold medalist in the 1960 Games, paid to Jamaica during his sophomore year. The school was a place where someone like him, who grew up poor in a crime-plagued neighborhood, stood a chance of encountering someone like Rudolph.

Jamaica High School

Read the entire article via Scoop.it from: www.newyorker.com


Notes from a graduate of Jamaica High:

I attended Jamaica High School, graduating from it in 1963. Those were probably the last peak years of the school. It had issues of racial non-integration. Despite the author’s statement, in the years I attended it was anything but racially homogeneous. Kids ran with kids like themselves, more or less divided down the lines of ethnicity and race.

There was little active hostility between the groups and a surprising amount of cross-pollination and dating. The school was far from perfect, but there existed a cadre of talented and dedicated teachers who made themselves available to those who wanted to learn, or who needed help.

Was it a model for the future? There were standardized tests — Regents exams — but these were based on what we learned in school, not on some bureaucrats notion of what we should “know.” Most of us came out better than we went in. And that’s saying a lot, especially these days.

On a lighter note, it was the only high school of which I’ve ever heard to cancel the senior prom (1963) due to lack of interest.


 

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About the Author

See on Scoop.itIn and About the News

Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.

WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE WORDS …

Her son died. Her husband died. Their father died. His brother died, then his father.

It was. Cancer. Heart attack. A minor infection turned virulent. A holdup gone wrong, a bullet gone astray. Senseless because death, disease, disaster are always senseless.

What to say? “This too shall pass.”

My mother said it all the time. It was her favorite expression. I never thought about it. She said it to comfort me when I was unhappy, when something had gone badly. It never occurred to me the expression was more than something a mother says when consoling a child.

It turns out the expression has a long, ancient history. It has been used to comfort a nation at war, a country consumed by unrest. Families, individuals, kingdoms. They are words you use when you run out of words.

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This too shall pass” (Persianاین نیز بگذرد‎, Arabicلا شيء يدوم‎, Hebrewגם זה יעבור‎) is an adage indicating that all conditions, positive or negative, are temporary.

Continue reading “WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE WORDS …”

A PAINFULLY DIFFERENT HISTORY – POSTWAR, TONY JUDT –

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
by Tony Judt – Audiobook

Reading PostWar was a project, an immersion experience during which I first unlearned, then relearned everything I knew of modern European history. It was worth the effort. This is a long book — 960 pages — crammed with so much information I had to read it twice before I felt I had the beginning of a grip on the material.

Tony Judt was an historian with controversial opinions. He made no pretense of being a neutral observer. Not that any historian is truly neutral. Every historian has an agenda, a point to make. Whether or not he or she puts it up front is a matter of style, but there is no such thing as historical neutrality. If an historian is writing about an era, he or she feels strongly about it. All history is changed, shaped, slanted by the historians who write it.

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...

Dr. Tony Judt believed the role of an historian is to set the record straight. He undertakes the debunking and de-mythologizing of post World War II European history. He lays bare lies that comprise the myth of French resistance, the “neutral” Swiss, the open-minded anti-Nazi Dutch — exposing an ugly legacy of entrenched antisemitism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

Although Judt follows a more or less chronological path from World War II to the present, he doesn’t do it as a strict “timeline.” Instead of a linear progression, he follows threads of ideas and philosophy. Tracing cultural and social development, he takes you from news events through their political ramifications. You follow parallel developments in cinema, literature, theater, television and arts, not just the typical political and economic occurrences on which most history focuses.

After two consecutive readings, I finally felt I’d gotten it. Postwar changed my view of  the world, not just what happened, but what is happening.

Tony Judt and I were born in 1947. We grew up during same years, but his Old World roots gave him an entirely different perspective. He forced me to question fundamental beliefs. What really happened? Was any of the stuff I believed true? Maybe not. It was hard to swallow, but he convinced me. I believe it.

If you are Jewish (I am and so was Judt), and lost family during the Holocaust, this will stir up painful issues. The depth and breadth of European antisemitism and collusion in the destruction of European Jewry is stomach churning. Pretty lies are easier to handle than ugly reality.

It’s easy to understand why so much of what we know is wrong. That’s they way we were taught. If we took the courses in school, we learned the “official version” of how the world was made.

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 cover

Even though I know more history than most civilians, I didn’t grasp the impact of these post WW 2 years — until Postwar.

I assumed, having lived these decades and followed news, that I knew what happened. I didn’t. What is reported by media barely scratches the surface.

The transformation of Europe from the wreckage of war to a modern European union is far more complex and far-reaching than I knew. These changes affect all of us directly and personally. I will never see the world the way I did before reading Postwar.

I read Postwar on paper, then listened to the audio version. It’s available from Audible.com. I recommend it to anyone with easily tired eyes because it is a very long book, no matter how you read it. The audio version has excellent narration. It a fine platform for the author’s conversational writing style.

Postwar is analysis and criticism, not just “what happened.” The book is an eye-opener, worth your time and effort, an investment in understanding and historical perspective. It’s never dull. After reading it, you will never see our modern world the same way.

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS – ERIK LARSON

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS

Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

I have rarely been more conflicted about a book than I was about this one. It was gripping, sometimes mesmerizing. Simultaneously appalling and annoying.

William Dodd was made ambassador to Hitler’s Germany because no one else wanted the job — and because they didn’t want to put a “real” ambassador in a lose-lose position.

From the outset, it was the intention of Dodd’s bosses that he should fail. The U.S. government never had any intention of supporting him, of stopping the Nazi rise, or curtail the personal power of Adolph Hitler. You need to understand this in order for the rest of the story to make sense, if indeed it could be said to make sense.

The indifference and callously entrenched antisemitism of US State Department officials and their resulting tolerance for the atrocities of the Nazi government is hard to stomach.This is not an image of our government that would make anyone proud to be an American.

The failure of all western nations to do anything to stop Hitler while they could have done so with relative ease, is difficult to fathom. Their choice of Dodd, who was considered an amateur and not “one of the club” was an incredibly cynical move by the U.S.

Most of the people in the book are awful in one way or another. Dodd, the ambassador, ultimately grows to become, in his own way, heroic. He saw what was happening and tried — within the very limited power of his position — to do what he could. That no one listened to him is part of the tragedy. Dodd’s daughter, on the other hand, is a feather-headed self-absorbed brat. She is like a case of hives. The more you scratch, the more you itch.

Everyone acts in bad faith to one degree or another. Even more hard to bear are those who failed to act, failed to respond to Dodd’s repeated pleas for aid. Usually, it wasn’t because they didn’t believe him (although some didn’t), but because the majority of them were hardened anti-Semites who thought Hitler would rid Europe of the menace of Communism while wiping out the Jews. He didn’t get rid of Communism, but he did a pretty thorough job of wiping out European Jewry. Historically, I guess that would make the glass half full?

How revolting is it for me to learn this? I always rejected my mother’s suspicions on this score as paranoia. I refused to believe my government could allow — encourage — the genocide of an entire people. Sometimes, discovering mom was right is not heartwarming. This is one of those times.

To put the cherry on this dessert, the State Department’s little plot to allow Hitler enough latitude to “take care of the Jews” also led us into to the bloodiest war in human history, a conflict in which more than 30 million people — military and civilian — died.

The banality of evil has never been more terrifying. Read it and weep.

Evil intentions never produce good results. This book offers the ultimate cautionary tale.

THE PROBLEM WITH CONGRESS

Too many people believe we will get better government by making sure no one in congress gets to stay there for a long time. I don’t know why inexperience would mean better government. In what other field do we prefer raw recruits to veterans? Would you want an inexperienced surgeon? A lawyer fresh out of law school?

Why do you want amateurs making your laws?

Our founding fathers specifically excluded term limits. Their experience under the Articles of Confederation (the document that preceded The Constitution) showed them that good people are not interested in temp jobs for lousy pay in a distant city. Those elected to office walked away from their positions — or never took them up in the first place. There was no future in it.

congress in session

When the Constitution was written, its authors wanted to tempt the best and the brightest into government service. They wanted candidates who would make it a career. They weren’t interested in amateurs or part-timers. Learning the business of governing takes years.

The Articles of Confederation contained exactly the ideas people are promulgating today. It failed. Miserably. Do we need to learn the same lesson again?

The absence of term limits in the Constitution is not an oversight. The writers of the Constitution thought long and hard about this problem.

A little more history

Under the Articles of Confederation, our country fell apart. Elected representatives came to the capital (New York), hung around awhile, then went home. Why stay? The job had no future and their salaries didn’t pay enough to cover their costs, much less support families. That’s why term limits were rejected by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Their aim was to encourage professionals to enter government service.

Term limits remove any hope of building a career in government. It morphs into a hard temp job without a future.

Myth Busting 101: Congress isn’t overpaid

They are paid more than you and me, but compared to what they could be earning elsewhere, they are paid poorly. “What?” you cry, “How can that be?”

Most members of congress are lawyers. The 2011-2012 salary for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate was $174,000 per year. A third year associate at a good law firm will do that well and after six to twelve years (1 – 2 senate terms), a competent attorney in a good market makes much more.

Senators and representatives have to maintain two residences, one in their native state, the other in DC. If you think $174,000 will support two houses and send the kids to college, you are living in a fantasy world. Which is why many members of congress have other income streams.

Our Founding Fathers expected congressmen, especially senators, to be men of means. They felt only wealthy people would be able to afford government service. And they would be less susceptible to bribery. On the whole, they were right.

Skill and experience matter

Writing a law that can stand up to scrutiny by courts and other members of congress takes a long time. You don’t waltz in from Anywhere, USA and start writing laws. Moreover, great legislators are rare in any generation. A sane electorate doesn’t throw them away.

We are not suffering from an entrenched group of old pols stopping the legislative process. We are suffering a dearth of experienced lawmakers who understand how the system works, know how to compromise. Can work with an opposition party. It’s every pol for him/herself these days … and that means no one is there for us. You know. The people.

Experienced old-timers got old. They retired. Or died. And were replaced by imbeciles.

Above and beyond the skill it takes to write legislation, it takes even longer to gain seniority and respect. Frank Capra notwithstanding, Mr. Smith doesn’t go to Washington and work miracles. Newly elected members of congress hope to build a career in politics. With luck, some will become great legislators, another Tip O’Neill, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Bob DoleTed Kennedy or another of the giants. Anyone you name connected to important legislation was a multi (many) term representative or senator.

Term limits eliminate any chance of finding great legislators

Term limits guarantee a bunch of amateurs — or worse — fumbling their way around congress. As soon as they figure out where the toilets are and get reasonably good at their jobs, they’ll be gone. Does that make sense? Really?

Garry and Tip O’Neill

If you think your congressman or senator is doing a crappy job, replace him or her with someone you believe will do better.

If you don’t elect them, they won’t be there

We have term limits. These are called elections. Throw the bums out. Vote for the other guy. Term limits were an awful idea in 1788 and they haven’t improved with time. Among the biggest concerns Democrats had about Barack Obama in 2008 was he didn’t have enough experience, hadn’t been in the senate long enough. With term limits, no one would ever have enough experience. Where would we get candidates to run for President? Look at some of the bozos who are trying to run right now. Not exactly the best and the brightest.

We don’t need term limits. We need better candidates.

The President doesn’t run the country

Congress writes legislation and votes it into law. Ultimately, it’s you, me, our friends and neighbors who choose the people to make laws, pass budgets, approve cabinet members and Supreme Court justices.

Whatever is wrong with Congress, it’s OUR fault

The 535 members of congress are chosen by us and if you don’t like one, don’t vote for him or her. If someone gets re-elected over and over, you have to figure that a lot of people vote for that candidate. You may not like him, but other people do. That’s what elections are about. It doesn’t necessarily work out the way you want, but changing the rules won’t solve the problems. Make the job more — not less — attractive so better people will want to go into government. Otherwise, you’re creating a job no one wants.

Ultimately, it’s all about America. Partisanship, special interests, regional issues, party politics and personal agendas need to take a back seat to the good of the nation … and we need to agree what that means . Term limits won’t fix the problem. Because that’s not what’s broken.


POSTSCRIPT: FROM GARRY ARMSTRONG. WHO WAS THERE AND KNOWS HOW IT WORKS. really.

I read all the comments before jumping into the fray.

First, this is a cogent and thoughtful post. That’s the old reporter not your husband speaking. Second, as the old reporter, I’ve had first hand, up close and often personal time with members of Congress and folks who’ve occupied the White House.

Former “Speakers” John McCormack and Tip O’Neil shared stories about the business of working both sides of the house to get things done. Party affiliation was put aside as veteran “pols”, guys who knew each other, brokered deals to get bills passed that helped their constituents. Younger pols, clearly just looking to make their bona fides and move on, were muzzled. These were the “term limit” people so many seem to want today.

Senators Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole, and others often talked about the lengthy but focused verbal card games played to avoid grid lock and, again, get the job done.

Garry and Marilyn at President Clinton’s party on Martha’s VineyardI’ve had the good fortune to spend time with Presidents from JFK through Bill Clinton. The brokering stories were repeated, regardless of party affiliation. Even Richard Nixon, in rare and calm moments, shared his beliefs about how to get the job done, using experience, collected favors and insight on what was important with the clock ticking.

I think my favorite pol was LBJ. I spent some very interesting personal time with Johnson, including a stint in Vietnam where he shared “off the record” insight into the job of running the country and assuming responsibility even if it would eventually cost him his job. (And it did cost him his job.)

So, you’ll have to forgive me if I have little patience with folks who spout opinion with little knowledge of how government and politics work.

Yes, we truly could use some people who really understand public service, have the desire to devote themselves to the demands and collateral damage of the job and want to help their constituents.

Enough of the sound and fury signifying nothing. Back to sports.

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION IN 100 WORDS – HAPPY BIRTHDAY U.S.A.!

The Revolution was about money. Like all wars. Mostly about taxes, especially on tea, which was huge until we discovered coffee. And who should pay what to whom.

We believed we should keep all the money. King George felt otherwise. We offered to split the difference.

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George said “Hell NO!” Then we fought a war.

France, pissed at England, came with warships and troops. They helped us beat the British, then went home. In a later skirmish — “The War of 1812” — the British returned to burn down Washington DC. We survived.

Next, we become a real country. The rest is history.

DECLARING INDEPENDENCE – A TIMELINE

Today is America’s Independence Day. It celebrates the announcement of the Declaration of Independence, our formal statement to King George and Great Britain that we no longer were willing to retain our status as colonies.

declaration_independence

There’s more than a little confusion about which event happened when regarding the Declaration of Independence, so here’s an historical timeline, Not everyone agrees on this precise timeline, but it’s close enough for a general consensus.

JULY 2, 1776: John Adams, a leader for independence, gets the delegates to the first Continental Congress to unanimously ratify the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson had written the draft document as there was general agreement that Jefferson was the best writer of the group.

JULY 4, 1776: The Declaration of Independence is signed. Thus July 4th became the U.S.’s official independence day, although John Adams argued it should be July 2nd, the day the document was ratified (rather than the 4th on which it was signed). But Adams argued about everything.

JULY 4, 1776 through August 2, 1776: Following its signing on July 4th, the Continental Congress announced the Declaration of Independence. It is distributed and read across the colonies. The process of reading the Declaration — getting the official word out — was not instant. It took about a month.

By August, a more attractive document displaying all the delegates’ signatures had been produced. In any case, whether or not the colonists had read or heard the document read, everyone knew what was happening. The “official word” took a month to get, but men on horseback going from town to town to tell their friends and family were faster and more thorough.

And of course people talked in pubs. Just like they do today, but without Twitter.

JANUARY 1777: The first printed versions of the Declaration of Independence for general distribution appeared. By then, the colonies are fully engaged in war.


Jefferson’s original draft, with changes by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, as well as Jefferson’s notes of the changes made by Congress, can be viewed at the Library of Congress.

You can see the most famous version of the Declaration, the hand-written signed document, at the National Archives in Washington DC. This is the version which for which the signing was completed on August 2, 1776.