Most Americans consider July 4 the day when all the action took place that made the Declaration what it was: A statement of liberty and freedom, a proclamation of independent nationhood, and even a manifesto defining what American patriots had been fighting for during a war that had been waging for 16 bloody months. The Continental Congress voted, declared, and signed all in one earth-shattering climax of patriotic energy. Charming popular depictions of the history of the Declaration reinforce this misconception. As a high school student enthralled with the bicentennial celebration of the nation in 1976, I saw the musical 1776 repeatedly, awed by its closing scene of the Congress’ delegates signing the Declaration as a bell tolled once for each of the 13 states. It was dramatic, heady stuff for a sophomore who already knew that he was in love with this nation’s history.
The truth is just as dramatic – but more complex. August is a significant month in the history of the Declaration for many reasons, including the fact it’s probably when the majority of the delegates actually signed the document. Contrary to the popular tradition established late in the 18th century and fostered to this day, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. We have good records of the proceedings in the Continental Congress, including the Journals of the Continental Congress that were kept from 1774 to 1789. The entry for July 4, 1776, contains a copy of the Declaration in its adopted form and the words, “Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President.” There is no list of additional signatures. A later entry (July 19) clearly states an order that the Declaration passed on July 4 be “fairly engrossed,” defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language as “written in large fair characters.” No doubt, this order created an official copy of Declaration – but again, there is no record of additional signers. However, the order also included a directive that the Declaration “when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, the journal notes “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” Thus, the best documentary evidence indicates that on July 4 the only founder who signed the Declaration was John Hancock, whose iconic and bold five-inch-long signature
prompted the birth of the phrase synonymous with placing one’s name on something: “He put his John Hancock on it.” Eventually, 56 delegates signed. Eight did not, some because they actually opposed independence. A few might have even signed as late as September or October 1776 because they were absent on other business.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all stated more than decade later that the Declaration had been signed on July 4. How could these titans of the American Revolution get such a basic fact wrong? Memories fade, and their idea of what “signing” meant could simply mean that when Hancock signed the Declaration as the president of Congress he was validating the document in the name of all the delegates. It is clear that some delegates were not even present in Congress on July 4, a fact substantiated by multiple sources. One thing is certain: When the majority of delegates gathered to sign the Declaration in August, they had to be prepared to do more than fight the heat, flies, and thunderstorms of a Philadelphia summer. They now had to fight for their lives. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:
“Do you recollect 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 subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts ‘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.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.”
These were men who had truly pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.” They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 233 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-century America had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer, Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document. Their signatures, and the country they created to the blessing of us all, are more than just ink on parchment.