Last month, we debunked John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence. Often assumed to depict the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Trumbull actually chose to immortalize the moment when the Committee of Five presented their draft of the Declaration to John Hancock and the Continental Congress.
So, when was the Declaration of Independence signed?
Spoiler: NOT ON JULY 4TH.*
Here is everything we know about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the signatures, and why those signatures matter.
What happened on July 4th?
Here is what happened in Continental Congress on July 4th, according to the Journals of the Continental Congress:
"Agreeable to the order of the day, the Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole, to take into farther consideration, the declaration; and the president resumed the chair. Mr. Harrison reported, that the committee of the whole Congress have agreed to a Declaration, which he delivered in. The Declaration being again read, was agreed to as follows: [Text of the Declaration of Independence] Ordered, That the declaration be authenticated and printed. That the committee appointed to prepare the declaration, superintend and correct the press. That copies of the declaration be sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops; that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army."
To summarize, the Declaration of Independence was agreed to by Congress on July 4th, and ordered to be printed and distributed to each of the states. But it wasn't unanimous. New York's delegates abstained from voting in favor of independence on July 2nd, based on outdated instructions. The New York Convention adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 9th, news that reached Congress in Philadelphia on July 15th. At the end of that week, on July 19th, Congress resolved as follows:
"That the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."
What does "fairly engrossed on parchment" mean?
The engrossed parchment is what most people think of as "the" Declaration of Independence: the document on display in the National Archives, alongside the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is a parchment sheet measuring 29 3/4 inches high by 24 1/4 inches wide. Unlike paper, parchment was a sturdier, longer-lasting material, and was also used for the Articles of Confederation, United States Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
To "fairly engross" means to copy in large, legible script, to create an official copy of a document. The person tasked with engrossing the Declaration of Independence was most likely Timothy Matlack. No official record exists, so historians rely on comparisons of Matlack's handwriting and his position as an assistant to Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson as evidence. Matlack used an English Roundhand script, and neatly wrote with a quill pen, making only two errors. He also engrossed the 1774 Petition to the King and George Washington's Commission as Commander-in-Chief. National Treasure fans may remember Matlack's name from a riddle Nicholas Cage's character discovered in the pipe from the Charlotte: "The legend writ, the stain affected. The key in Silence undetected. Fifty-five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack cannot offend." Technically it should be fifty-six, but if we start quibbling with National Treasure, this blog will be too long... And for the record, here is what the back of the engrossed parchment looks like (no treasure map...).
When was the Declaration of Independence signed?
Historians believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed by the majority of the delegates on August 2nd, 1776. Timothy Matlack engrossed the Declaration on parchment sometime between July 19th and August 1st. According to the Journals of the Continental Congress, on August 2nd,
"The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed."
49 delegates most likely signed on August 2nd, including President of Congress John Hancock. Seven delegates were absent from Continental Congress on August 2nd, and must have signed later. Due to his exclusion from the Goddard broadside, we believe Thomas McKean was the last delegate to sign, sometime after January 1777.
56 delegates (including President of Congress John Hancock) representing each of the United States signed the Declaration of Independence. But as we explored in No John Trumbull, not every signer was present for the debates and the vote for independence, and not everyone who voted for independence went on to sign the engrossed parchment.
Eight men who were present on July 2nd never signed the Declaration, including most of the Pennsylvanians who either abstained from voting or voted against independence: John Dickinson, Charles Humphreys, and Thomas Willing. The other Pennsylvanian delegate who abstained -- Robert Morris -- signed on August 2nd. The New York delegation abstained from voting on July 2nd, and four delegates -- John Alsop, George Clinton, Robert R. Livingston, and Henry Wisner -- never signed the Declaration of Independence. Remember, Robert R. Livingston was a member of the Committee of Five, and yet not a signer.
Conversely, eight men signed who weren't even elected to Congress until after July 4th: Matthew Thornton (NH), William Williams (CT), Benjamin Rush (PA), George Clymer (PA), James Smith (PA), George Taylor (PA), George Ross (PA), and Charles Carroll of Carrollton (MD). Thornton famously requested permission to sign the Declaration of Independence, even though he wasn't elected to the Continental Congress until September 1776.
The one delegate who voted for independence and never signed the Declaration of Independence was John Rogers of Maryland. The one delegate who voted against independence and still signed the Declaration of Independence was George Read of Delaware.
Did everyone sign on the same day?
No. 49 men were most likely in Congress on August 2nd:
President John Hancock
New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple
Massachusetts: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine
Rhode Island: William Ellery, Stephen Hopkins
Connecticut: Samuel Huntington, Roger Sherman, William Williams
New York: William Floyd, Francis Lewis, Philip Livingston
New Jersey: Abraham Clark, John Hart, Francis Hopkinson, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon
Pennsylvania: George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, John Morton, George Ross, Benjamin Rush, James Smith, George Taylor*, James Wilson
Delaware: George Read, Caesar Rodney
Maryland: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone
Virginia: Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr.
North Carolina: Joseph Hewes, William Hooper, John Penn
South Carolina: Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge
Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton
*Taylor's name is never mentioned in the Journals of the Continental Congress, so it is difficult to tell when exactly he attended Congress. He most likely arrived on July 20, and without evidence that says otherwise, we assume he signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2nd. It is also possible that several other Pennsylvania delegates signed after August 2nd, including George Clymer, George Ross, and James Smith. But for now, we will assume they signed with the majority.
That leaves 7 signers who, based on evidence, were absent on August 2nd. If we assume that these delegates signed soon after their return or arrival in Philadelphia (or in McKean's case, wherever the Continental Congress was located at that time), here is the approximate order of those remaining signatures:
Richard Henry Lee (VA): Returned August 27th
Elbridge Gerry (MA): Returned September 2nd
Lewis Morris (NY): Returned September 8th or earlier
George Wythe (VA): Returned September 14th or earlier
Oliver Wolcott (CT): Returned October 1st
Matthew Thornton (NH): Arrived November 4th
Thomas McKean (DE): Returned briefly in late September, but likely didn't sign until after January 1777, and possibly as late as 1781
So, the Declaration of Independence was signed by the majority on August 2nd, but it took several months if not years for all of the signatures to be added. This makes the Declaration of Independence a little different from other documents from the Continental Congress. The Olive Branch Petition, for example, was signed on one specific day. The Journals of the Continental Congress show that the petition was ordered to be engrossed on July 5th, 1775, and on July 8th, "The Petition to the King being engrossed, was compared, and signed by the several members." Two copies of the Petition were actually prepared and signed, and according to John Adams, one copy was sent with Richard Penn on one ship on July 9th, and the duplicate was sent in another ship on July 10th. So everyone who signed must have done so at the same time.
The US Constitution is another interesting example. We celebrate Constitution Day on September 17, 1787, which is THE DAY when delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the engrossed parchment document. 38 delegates were present on that day, and there are 39 signatures on the engrossed parchment. John Dickinson was ill, and had George Read sign his name by proxy -- something that didn't happen with the Declaration of Independence, as far as we can tell. Elbridge Gerry wrote to John and Samuel Adams on July 21st, 1776, "Pray Subscribe for me the Declaration of Independence if the same is to be signed as proposed. I think We ought to have the privilege when necessarily absent of voting and signing by proxy." So, unlike the later Constitution, no one voted or signed by proxy for the Declaration of Independence, but they did have the opportunity to sign after the initial day of signing.
One interesting note: for most of the states, the signatures added after August 2nd are found at the end of their states' list of delegates. In other documents, the Delaware delegates typically signed in this order: Rodney, McKean, Read. But since McKean signed after August 2nd, his name is last. Matthew Thornton even had to sign at the end of the first column, since there was no room left under the other New Hampshire delegates' signatures. The exception is Virginia, where the two names added after August 2nd are the first two names listed for their state. It would seem as though Jefferson intentionally left room for his friends and colleagues Wythe and Lee to sign ahead of him.
Why do people assume the Declaration was signed on July 4th?
How did we as Americans come to associate the 4th of July with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when it was only approved on that date? Well, Thomas Jefferson is partly to blame, along with other founding fathers who (likely) misremembered the events of the summer of 1776. Here is Jefferson's account, from his Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress:
"the debates having taken- up the greater parts of the 2d. 3d. & 4th. days of July were, in the evening of the last closed. the declaration was reported by the commee., agreed to by the house, and signed by every member present except Mr. Dickinson."
A note in Jefferson's handwriting, pasted onto page 12 of these Notes, attempts to clarify this error (but actually only adds to the confusion):
"the Declaration thus signed on the 4th. on paper was engrossed on parchment, & signed again on the 2d. of Aug."
Jefferson claims that the delegates signed a paper copy of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, and then signed the engrossed parchment on August 2nd. If this signed paper copy actually existed, it has been lost. Pauline Maier and other historians are skeptical of Jefferson's memory (see Maier's American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, p. 150).
There is a long historiography of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Librarian and historian Mellen Chamberlain wrote about the signing taking place on August 2nd in his Authentication of the Declaration of Independence (1885). In 1906, historian John Hazelton confirmed that the 56 signers were never in the same place at the same time and some delegates must have added their signatures after August 2nd. His The Declaration of Independence: Its History is still regarded as an important resource on the Declaration of Independence. Some historians still fall on the other side, claiming the Declaration was in fact signed on July 4th. See, for example, Wilfred Ritz's 1986 article, "The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776". We argue that the evidence supports the majority of the delegates signing the engrossed parchment on August 2nd, with signatures added after that date. But if there is a paper copy of the Declaration with signatures from July 4th somewhere out there, we'll do our best to find it!
The fact that we celebrate the United States Constitution on the day it was signed adds another element to this confusion. Howard Chandler Christy's portrait of the Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States hangs in the Capitol, as does Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, so it's easy to assume that these portraits both depict the signing of their respective documents
Why was John Hancock's "John Hancock" so large?
It really wasn't. Hancock had a large, flamboyant signature, and it takes up a similar amount of space on the Declaration of Independence as on other documents and letters signed by Hancock. This Slate article measures Hancock's signature against everyone else's, and ultimately concludes that Hancock may have underestimated the number of people who would sign the document. The article also proves that, mathematically, Hancock could have gone way bigger with his signature...
What was it like in Independence Hall on August 2nd?
Besides the spectacles comment, there are a number of quotations from the signing for which we have no evidence. Stephen Hopkins declaring "My hand trembles, but my heart does not!" Benjamin Franklin's acknowledgement that, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." The rotund Benjamin Harrison commenting that, should they hang, he would have the advantage of dying quickly while skinnier delegate Elbridge Gerry would "kick in the air half an hour after it is over with me."
Though there may have been one-liners such as these and moments of levity, according to Benjamin Rush, the mood was somber on August 2nd. In a letter to John Adams in 1811, Rush recalled, "the solicitude and labors, and fears, and sorrows and sleepless nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended, and Subscribed the declaration of independance..." and asked Adams, "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 at that time to be our own death warrants?"
How are the signatures arranged?
In our March Highlight on Mary Katherine Goddard and her broadside of the Declaration of Independence, we briefly explored the significance of the signing order on the engrossed parchment. To recap, the states are in order from north (New Hampshire) to south (Georgia), and from right to left.
GA NC MD PA NY NH
SC VA DE NJ MA
The engrossed parchment represents a shift in practice for documents signed by the Continental Congress. In the Articles of Association (1774), Petition to the King (1774), and Olive Branch Petition (1775), the signatures are organized by state, in order from north to south, but from left to right. In the later Articles of Confederation (1778-1781) and United States Constitution (1789), the signatures are organized by state in order from north to south, and from right to left.
The Declaration of Independence also differs from other documents in a more subtle but possibly more powerful way. Unless you are very familiar with the Founding Fathers, it is difficult to know which signer represented which state. In other Congressional documents, the state delegations are labeled. In some, they are even labeled with the date of the signatures.
Take the Articles of Confederation (right). They were adopted on November 15, 1777, but ratification by all thirteen states didn't happen until March 1, 1781. On June 26, 1778, the Articles were ordered to be engrossed, and the next day they were ordered to be engrossed again after errors were found in the first engrossed copy. On July 9, 1778, this second engrossed copy of the Articles of Confederation was signed and ratified by delegates from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina (eight of the thirteen United States). North Carolina signed on July 21st, Georgia on July 24th, New Jersey on November 26th, and Delaware on May 5th, 1779. Maryland was the last state to ratify, signing on March 1, 1781. You can see how signatures were added over time, and dated accordingly. If only there was such clear physical evidence for the signing of the Declaration of Independence!
The other documents mentioned -- the Articles of Association, Petition to the King, Olive Branch Petition, and United States Constitution -- also have state/colony labels. But not the Declaration of Independence. Why?
In American Scripture, Pauline Maier asked an important and often overlooked question: "Why, however, was it signed at all? Only John Browne, Parliament's clerk, signed the English Declaration of Rights. Moreover... the members of England's seventeenth-century Parliaments did not customarily sign instruments they presented to the King, or were declarations and petitions signed by their drafters elsewhere in Europe." She goes on to explain that "the documents were written in a way that made delegates' signatures necessary." Take a look at the opening lines of earlier petitions:
Articles of Association (1774): "We, his majesty's most loyal subjects, the delegates of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode-Island, Connecticut, New-York, Pennsylvania, the three lower counties of Newcastle, Kent and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, and South-Carolina, deputed to represent them in a continental Congress, held in the city of Philadelphia, on the 5th day of September, 1774, avowing our allegiance to his majesty, our affection and regard for our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain and elsewhere, affected with the deepest anxiety, and most alarming apprehensions, at those grievances and distresses, with which his Majesty's American subjects are oppressed;..."
Petition to the King (1774): "We, your Majesty's faithful subjects of the Colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Counties of New-Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, in behalf of ourselves and the inhabitants of those Colonies who have deputed us to represent them in General Congress, by this our humble Petition, beg leave to lay our Grievances before the Throne."
Olive Branch Petition (1775): "We, your Majesty's faithful subjects of the Colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Counties of Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, in behalf of ourselves and the inhabitants of these Colonies, who have deputed us to represent them in General Congress, entreat your Majesty's gracious attention to this our humble petition."
Conversely, the original title of the Declaration of Independence was "In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled." Later, the official title became "In Congress, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." Unlike earlier documents, the delegates were no longer subjects. In the Declaration of Independence, they aren't addressing the King. They're addressing "a candid world", talking about the King.
The signatures on all of these documents are important, because they record who exactly was speaking on behalf of each colony-turned-state. But the signatures on the Declaration of Independence are perhaps even more important because they lack those state labels. Yes, these were delegates voting on behalf of their respective states. But take a look at the final sentence: "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Beyond serving as a delegate, these men were pledging everything in support of independence. If the Revolution had failed, the Declaration would have been a list of those who had committed high treason. This is also why the legend of Hancock writing his name large enough for KGIII to read is only a legend -- they didn't intend to send the engrossed and signed parchment to the King (as they had with their previous petitions). They intended to keep it, to let it form the foundation for their new union.
When did the public know who had signed the Declaration of Independence?
The engrossed parchment was rolled up and kept with other important documents by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress. It would have barely been seen by the eyes of the Continental Congress, much less the eyes of the public. The first printing to include the names of the signers was also a tightly controlled document. The Goddard broadside was printed specifically to be kept in the archives of each state. The first publicly accessible printing of the Declaration of Independence with the signers would have been the printed edition of the Journals of the Continental Congress for 1776, published in 1777 by Robert Aitken and again in 1778 by John Dunlap.
However, these first printings (and many, many subsequent printings) left off Thomas McKean's name. The first printing to include all 56 signers was in 1782, six years after August 2nd, 1776.
Still have a question about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Ask in the comments, or submit it on our FAQs page, and we will do our best to answer it!
By Emily Sneff