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Gov. Nixon to recreate first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, a family legacy

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in April 2016.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in April 2016.

Monday, July 8, 1776. It’s a “warm sunshine morning” in Philadelphia and the revolutionary Col. John Nixon, the city’s sheriff and distant relative of present-day Missouri Gov. Jeremiah Nixon, stands upon a platform in front of the Pennsylvania State House — now Independence Hall. 

The ink was, proverbially, barely dried on the Declaration of Independence, which had been finished four days prior in the very same building.

“John Nixon read and proclaimed, to a great course of people, in a voice clear and distinct enough to be heard in the garden of Mr. Norris’ house on the east side of Fifth Street, the Declaration of Independence publicly for the first time,” reads a recording of the events written by Charles Henry Hart in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography from 1877.

Col. John Nixon as depicted in artist Gilbert Stuart's oil on canvass in 1800.
Credit Credit Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, [Public domain].
Col. John Nixon as depicted in artist Gilbert Stuart's oil on canvass in 1800.

“It is recorded that it was received with heart-felt satisfaction, and that the company declared their approval by the repeated huzzas,” the retelling continues.  

That public reading will have occurred 240 years ago to the day this July 8th, when Gov. Jay Nixon will recreate that first public reading of his distant relative at Independence Hall, bedecked in period garb complete with a three-cornered hat. It’s a story that has been passed down in his family through life as Quakers in Pennsylvania, to New Orleans, to East St. Louis and, eventually, to De Soto, Mo.

Nixon said he learned of the tale before he went to kindergarten when, prior to Fourth of July fireworks and jaunts in the swimming hole, older members of the Nixon clan would gather to talk about family history.

“It is nice to be tied directly to America before we were a country,” Nixon said. “In an odd way, it makes you more American but it also makes you realize that we are a land of immigrants. It was folks from Ireland and France and England and Africa and North Africa that joined together to form that. The fact that our family was here before the Declaration of Independence, gives us a little of that spirit of independence and courage, I think, to state our opinion and do something with it.”

Nixon joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss the significance and personal meaning of the reading, which he was invited to do by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.

The first question on our minds: If the Declaration of Independence was signed by members of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, why would it not be read publicly until July 8?

Col. John Nixon read the Declaration of Independence to people gathered in front of the Pennsylvania State House on July 8, 1776.
Credit By Scan by NYPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Col. John Nixon read the Declaration of Independence to people gathered in front of the Pennsylvania State House on July 8, 1776.

“Think back in history: it is 1776, you’re in the Continental Congress, you’re from the various territories and looking out the window you see British troops,” Nixon said. “Voting to declare independence may have been a very dangerous thing for members of the Continental Congress.”

The congress purposefully scheduled the reading four days after they had the chance to leave the town and return to their countryside, plantation estates where they were less likely to be targeted by British assassins.

“When you were declaring independence from Britain, Great Britain, they figured there would be some significant fireworks, which ended up being the war of independence,” Nixon said.

After reading the Declaration, John Nixon would go on to help organize the Bank of Pennsylvania and, later, become the director of the Bank of North America. Other members of the Nixon family became Quakers and later moved from Pennsylvania to New Orleans. It was there that relatives, in the early 1800s, took an interest in the family’s history and wrote the story down. Eventually, the family migrated to the St. Louis area.

Jay Nixon is the 11th Jeremiah Nixon in his family, the first coming to the country in 1689 and settling in Philadelphia. For the 300th anniversary of that crossing, in 1989, the Nixon family reunited in Philadelphia and that’s when he first came face-to-face with the John Nixon of Nixon family lore.

“We went up to the third floor of Independence Hall to see a picture of [him] and he looked very much like one of my uncles,” Nixon said.

A public reading of the Declaration of Independence is recreated in Philadelphia every July 8.
Credit Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park
A public reading of the Declaration of Independence is recreated in Philadelphia every July 8.

Preparing for his turn

The weight of the family name is sitting on Nixon’s shoulders as he prepares for July 8. He said that he must be prepared to project without a microphone, just in the same way his distant relative once did, to be heard throughout the town square.

“I’ve been starting my practice on it and the writing style of that time was much different than it is now,” Nixon said. “Sentences were much longer, commas were commonplace and words had more syllables in them. There’s going to be a significant amount of practice. I do not want to embarrass the Nixon family, the state of Missouri or the United States of America on July 8.”

However, Nixon said he is inspired by the words he is reading, claiming Thomas Jefferson, a young, 33-year-old lawyer, had a “divine bit of drafting genius.”

“While people were different that came to America, they all did come here,” Nixon said. “I think that the intellect, intelligence and the education, whether formal or not, was pretty significant. I think they deeply understood the dramatic nature of what they were doing. You don’t declare independence from the world’s greatest power unless you understand that blood will be shed and there will be many difficulties in the future. Consequently, I think they thought extremely carefully about what words were used and how to express their feelings.”

In his last 29 years inside the government, Nixon said he’s seen his fair share of drama (his time serving in office during 9/11 is one of those moments that jump to mind), but that nothing comes close to what the Founding Fathers did.

As he reads the words on July 8, Nixon said he will be thinking about their current implications.

“The fact that a significant candidate for president would say, my plan is to build a wall to keep other people out and, oh by the way, one of the largest religions in the world, we won’t let any of those people come to our country, when not so many years ago that was the basis of our country — an open place where people, regardless of their faith, regardless of their ethnicity could settle. … to do and see the short-sightedness of some of the discourse now is very jarring,” Nixon said.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.