This Day in History: The Declaration of Independence is signed
On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence is signed. If you’re surprised to hear that it wasn’t signed on July 4, then you’re in good company! Even Thomas Jefferson and John Adams later became confused about when they signed.
Maybe Jefferson had cause to be distracted that summer. Would you believe that he nearly missed his opportunity to sign the Declaration? His wife was not doing well, and he’d asked for a replacement in Congress. Virginia was slow to act, which left Jefferson still in Philadelphia for the August 2nd signing.
Wouldn’t that have been odd if he’d never signed the document he authored?
The Continental Congress approved a formal, written Declaration of Independence on July 4, as we all know. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would later insist that everyone had also signed on that day, but the evidence indicates otherwise. For one thing, the list of people present on July 4 doesn’t match the list of signatories. Delegates came and went. Some who’d voted for independence were never signatories to the document itself. Some who weren’t present for the July 4 vote still signed.
One signer, Thomas McKean, would later attest that “no person signed it on that day [July 4] nor for many days after.”
His recollection gained support when the Secret Journals of Congress were published in the early 1800s. The congressional decision to have the Declaration “engrossed on parchment . . . [and] signed by every member of Congress” was not recorded until July 19. A subsequent August 2nd entry notes that the engrossed Declaration had finally been received “and was signed by the members.”
Given these facts, most historians agree that Jefferson and Adams simply remembered it wrong: The signing occurred on August 2, although John Hancock and Charles Thomson, as President and Secretary of Congress, may have signed something earlier. After all, those two names appeared on the earliest published copies of the Declaration.
What a nerve-wracking experience to sign that particular document!? Benjamin Rush would later remember a feeling that they were signing “our own death warrants.” “The Silence & the gloom of the morning,” he wrote, “were interrupted I well recollect only for a moment by Col: Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr Gerry at the table, ‘I shall have a great advantage over you Mr: Gerry when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’”
The joke was greeted with a few fleeting smiles before the solemn atmosphere returned. Most everyone would sign that day, although a few signatures came later. In general, delegates signed with their state delegations, and the states were ordered South to North. Thus, the southernmost state, Georgia, appears first and the northernmost states, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, appear last.
Did Benjamin Franklin really say that “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately,” as everyone signed? Historian David McCullough concludes that it is “impossible to know, just as there is no way to confirm the much-repeated story that the diminutive John Hancock wrote his name large so the King might read it without spectacles. But the stories endured because they were in character . . . .”
Either way, one thing is for certain: Today is a good day to remember the 56 men who risked their lives, with the stroke of a pen. But for them, where would we be?
David McCullough, John Adams (2001)
Jessie Kratz, National Archives, Making it Official: The Day the Declaration of Independence was Signed (Aug. 2, 2016)
Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (2013)
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (July 2, 1776)
Letter from Benjamin Rush to John Adams (July 20, 1811)
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton (June 30, 1776)
Letter from Thomas McKean to Caesar A. Rodney (Aug. 22, 1813)
Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010)
Secret Journals of Congress (July 19 & Aug. 2, 1776)