REVIVING A TRADITION: This plaque has been re-installed on South Warren Street in Trenton, where the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in 1776.
By Anne Levin
Monday, July 8, 1776 was a historic day in Trenton. The city — then part of Hunterdon County — was among three sites (Easton and Philadelphia were the others) where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud for the first time.
Last year, 245 years to the day of that historic reading on the steps of the courthouse on Warren Street, the Kiwanis Club of Trenton revived the tradition where the building once stood. Among those reciting a portion of the document aloud was Bernard McMullan, president of the Trenton Council of Civic Associations. He got an idea.
“I knew that the first reading had taken place across the street. A plaque that had been there on a granite pedestal was gone — probably ripped off and never replaced 30 or 40 years ago,” he said. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to restore the plaque?”
McMullan invited the Kiwanis Club to collaborate with him on an effort to find funding for a new plaque. They secured grants and support from the Mercer County Cultural and Historical Commission, and Trenton’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Culture. Local graphic artist John Gummere was recruited to create the design.
“We consulted with the Trenton Historical Society, and [author/historian] Larry Kidder made sure it was historically accurate,” McMullan said. “Someone from the Old Barracks sent a photo from an old map that showed a hand drawing of what the courthouse would have looked like, so we were able to incorporate that.”
Last Friday, July 8, the plaque was formally unveiled as part of the Kiwanis Club’s public reading of the Declaration by 19 volunteers. A mural across the street depicts the original event. The plaque sits on property recently purchased by the Communications Workers of America, who agreed to let it be placed there.
In addition to Gummere’s design showing the old courthouse, the marker has a feature that speaks to contemporary life — a QR code that links to audio recordings of the document being read by current residents of Trenton, in both English and Spanish.
“Each one said the names of three of the signers of the Declaration,” said McMullan, “They were collected into audio files and complied in the right order, and put up on the website. So you click on the code in the plaque itself, and it takes you to the website where you can listen to the recording.”
Having readers in English and Spanish was part of an effort to reflect the current population of the city. Since McMullan runs the annual Taste Trenton weekend, he is familiar with many of the people who run Latino restaurants. “I told them I needed readers, and they lined them up for me. One of my co-conspirators in Taste Trenton went out of her way to find people from a variety of Latin American countries,” he said. “We also focused on some of the people who had read in the prior year. We stayed away from politicians, other than [Trenton] Mayor Reed Gusciora.”
Wording on the plaque refers to the city’s central role in the war for independence. The two Battles of Trenton “demonstrated the resolve of the colonists to successfully achieve the independence from Great Britain that they had declared,” it reads.
Last week’s reading was held as a part of Liberty Weekend in Trenton. McMullan hopes it will become an annual event. “It would be great if we could organize a weekend or a week in summer to commemorate the role of Trenton in the revolutionary period and beyond,” he said. “Liberty weekend went well. Now, we’ll sit down with people and see what we can come up with for the future.”