The most well-known printed version of the United States' Declaration of Independence is emblazoned with the words "In Congress, July 4, 1776" at the top, and displays the signatures of John Hancock and other founding fathers at the bottom. Yet it is not true, as often believed, that the document was actually signed on that celebrated date. These historic events, central to the founding of the United States of America, deserve to be understood in detail.
In May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress was seated in the Assembly Hall of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. Weeks earlier, hostilities had broken out between the British and colonial militias at Lexington, Massachusetts, and Concord, Massachusetts. King George III had not replied to the petition sent the prior October by the First Continental Congress, stating the colonists’ grievances. In August of 1775, the King declared the colonies to be in open rebellion. The Second Congress swiftly formed a Continental Army under the command of George Washington. By the middle of 1776, public sentiment in numerous colonies appeared to have turned decisively in favor of independence from Great Britain.
Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia delegate acting on behalf of the Virginia Convention, proposed to Congress a resolution on independence on June 7, 1776. The first of three provisions in this resolution read as follows: "Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." Other town and colonial assemblies were issuing similar pleas.
Such a profound action demanded careful deliberation. On June 11, Congress put off a vote on Lee’s resolution. It appointed a five-member committee to draft a public statement that would explain the reasons for declaring independence should Congress so decide. John Adams of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania were on the committee, along with Robert R. Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. The fifth member, Virginian Thomas Jefferson, was chosen to be the document’s principal drafter. After incorporating changes suggested by Adams and Franklin, the committee submitted its draft declaration to the Congress on June 28. This is the scene depicted in John Trumbull’s famous painting that now hangs in the Capitol Building rotunda in Washington, D.C.
Congress debated Lee’s resolution on Monday, July 1. Nine colonies were prepared to vote in favor. The South Carolina and Pennsylvania delegations were opposed; the two Delaware delegates were deadlocked; and the New York delegates were unable to vote, since their instructions permitted them only to pursue reconciliation with the king. Overnight, however, the situation changed. On July 2, Caesar Rodney rode in to Philadelphia from Dover, Delaware, bringing a tie-breaking vote for Delaware in favor of independence. South Carolina shifted its position in favor, and the Pennsylvania opponents chose to stay away. When the vote was called on July 2, the Lee resolution passed by a vote of 12 to zero, with New York abstaining. After this historic decision, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, predicting that future Americans would commemorate their independence with a festival every second of July.
Meanwhile, that same day in the New York harbor, British troops under Admiral William Howe landed at Staten Island. They were preparing for imminent battle with Washington’s forces.
The full Congress then began debating the declaration, making substantial editorial revisions but leaving mostly untouched the soaring rhetoric of Jefferson’s opening paragraphs. On July 4, Congress approved the final draft. It ordered the statement printed and distributed to the colonial assemblies and divisions of the Continental Army.
That evening, the printer John Dunlap prepared a large broadside with the complete text of “a Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.” It is believed that about 200 copies of the Dunlap broadside were published on July 5; about 25 still exist today. At the bottom are printed these words: “Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President. Attest, Charles Thomson, Secretary.” The document was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia on July 8. Over the next few weeks it was reprinted in newspapers up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
On July 9, New York reversed its earlier instructions to its delegates, permitting them to join the other colonies favoring a formal break with Britain. A few days later, the news reached Philadelphia that the colonies were now unanimously for independence. On July 19, Congress ordered an official copy of the declaration to be “fairly engrossed”—written out in large handwriting—on parchment for the delegates to sign. This job went to Timothy Matlack, an assistant to the congressional secretary, Charles Thomson.
On August 2, 1776, the Congress members affixed their signatures to this parchment inside the Pennsylvania State House, later renamed Independence Hall. The first and largest signature was that of the president of the Congress, John Hancock of Massachusetts. The mood in the room was far from jubilant. All were aware of the magnitude of what they were undertaking—an act of high treason against the British Crown that could cost each man his life. Recalling the day many years later, Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush wrote of the “pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress,” to sign “what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants.”
Not every man who had been present in Congress on July 4 signed the declaration on August 2. Historians believe seven of the 56 signatures on the document were placed there later. Two prominent delegates passed up the chance to sign: John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York. The names of the signers were made public in January of 1777, when they were printed on another broadside edition of the Declaration published in Baltimore, Maryland.