When in the course of human events…

January 6, 2023
This is Bedford’s version of the Declaration of Independence, sent by John Hancock in 1776 to Massachusetts town clerks in the municipalities that existed at the time. Courtesy photo/Ashley Large

~Submitted by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large

This is the first in a series of articles by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large. She will share some of the interesting items that are in the town’s archives.     

In the center of Bedford, in an old school building, there is a treasure that is so unique that each item proudly bears its own pedigree and value. To access this treasure, you must enter the old school and creep down the stairs to the lower level. It may be dark, but you see a thick, heavy door resembling something you would find guarding the fortunes of billionaires in sleek bank vaults. But what is inside this space? As you walk through the heavy door and through a second entrance, you look around and see – records. Rows and rows of records. You are in Bedford’s town records vault. Don’t be disappointed because, although the collection inside does not take the form of gold bars and bags of diamonds, it is a treasure nonetheless.  

The records you now see recount the story of Bedford from its very beginning to the present time. These records are owned by the Town and not by any one person. Most are public records. They are kept safe in this climate-controlled, secure, and fire-resistant room and have a full-time employee to curate them.

The vault is not open to the public out of the need to keep items safe and in a beneficial physical environment. However, it will be my pleasure as the Town Archivist to highlight some items from the collection for you to get a sense of what “lives” in the vault. And indeed, they do live. Their physical form may be old – as early as 1720 – but the information within them is as relevant as ever.

Here are a few of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence, sent to Bedford in 1776. The signatures shown are copies from the original Declaration signed in Philadelphia. Courtesy photo/Ashley Large

Let us examine the following item:  Within the collection of the Town’s early record books – bound volumes of the Town’s history – there are several pages that highlight Bedford’s connection to pivotal events in the founding of the American nation. On page 31 of Record Book B in the year 1776, you will find a full rendering of the Declaration of Independence, complete with a flourishing handwritten introduction, “When in the course of human events…” Ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the original document’s importance is second only to the Constitution. (Bedford’s example omits the “e” in “course.”)  

Delegates of the Congress were encouraged to bring the text of the Declaration to their states, where it would be disseminated and read publicly. John Hancock, president of the Congress, enthusiastic signer of the original document, and delegate from Massachusetts, had 300 handbills printed with the text of the Declaration. These were then sent to the Massachusetts town clerks in the municipalities that existed at the time. Each town was directed to read the moving words after Sunday church services and to have them recorded in their record books. This is Bedford’s example and it is a moving tribute to the spirit of the times and to Bedford’s place within it.  

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