The Declaration of Independence was Approved on July 2nd and Signed on August 2nd, So Why is July 4th Independence Day?

Signing the Declaration of IndependenceWhile it is often said that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, this isn’t actually correct. In fact, nobody signed it on the 4th. This is contradictory to Thomas Jefferson’s, John Adams’, and Benjamin Franklin’s account of events. On top of their accounts, the public congressional record of events back their story. So how do we know it didn’t happen this way?

To begin with, the Secret Journals of Congress that were eventually made public in 1821 paint a different story. They contain an entry stating, on August 2nd: “The declaration of independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.”

Now if this was the only evidence, one might lean towards a typo in the journal and believing the aforementioned three individuals and public congressional record. However, one of the other signers of the declaration, Thomas McKean, denied the July 4th signing date and backed it up by illustrating a glaring flaw in Jefferson’s, Adams’, and Franklin’s argument- namely, that most of the signers were not members of congress on July 4th and thus wouldn’t have been there to sign it. As McKean said in 1796: “No person signed it on that day nor for many days after.”

Further evidence comes from the interesting fact that the parchment version of the Declaration of Independence that is on display and kept in the United States National Archives wasn’t actually written until July 19th; this being a copy of the approved text that was announced to the world on July 4th, with about 150-200 copies being made on paper and distributed on that date (26 of which are still around today, thus pre-dating what is now generally thought of by most as the “original”).

This little tidbit also came from the Secret Journals of Congress which has an entry on July 19th stating: “Resolved 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’ & that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.”

So, in the end, this signed document probably would have been copied by Timothy Matlack, Jefferson’s clerk, rather than penned by Jefferson himself, and certainly couldn’t have been signed on July 4th.

It’s also interesting to note that John Adams thought that July 2nd, not July 4th, would be celebrated in the future in the United States.  On July 3, 1776, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams noted:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

So why did he think July 2nd would be Independence Day and how did July 4th end up getting the nod instead?  Because July 2nd is when the Second Continental Congress voted to approved a resolution of independence. Although nobody voted on or signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th,  that was the date the Declaration was announced to the world, and why it was ultimately chosen as Independence Day.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence over the much more qualified and more skilled writer Ben Franklin.  The reason behind this, according to Ormand Seavey, editor of Oxford’s edition of Ben Franklin’s autobiography, was that Franklin was known to put very subtle satire in just about everything he wrote and, quite often, nobody but he was smart enough to comprehend it until much later.  Knowing this document would likely be examined closely by the nations of the world at that time, they chose to avoid the issue by having the much less gifted writer, Jefferson, write it instead, with Franklin and three others to help Jefferson draft it.
  • The drafters were known as the “Committee of Five”.  They were appointed to write a statement that presented to the world the colonies’ case for independence.  These five consisted of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Ben Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson.
  • Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  Adam’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  He didn’t know that Jefferson had died a few hours before.  The two were extremely bitter enemies for much of their political life, but in retirement laid aside their differences and became very close friends.
  • One other U.S. President, James Monroe, died on July 4th, 1831, five years after Adams and Jefferson.   President Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand, was born on July 4th.
  • There is in fact writing on the back of the Declaration of Independence.  It reads: “Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776”.  This writing appears on the bottom of the document, upside down.  We of course know that this signed version wasn’t written until July 19th, but the founding fathers probably wanted to commemorate the official date of the announcement with this copy, which was meant to last, being written on parchment instead of paper like all the other copies at that time.
  • Rather than give a formal response to the declaration, the British instead secretly commissioned John Lind to write a response entitled “Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress”.  One of the main thrusts of the response was criticizing one of the colonists’ statements and the blatant hypocrisy it demonstrated: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  All the while the same drafters of the declaration and the colonists were slave owners, denying their slaves rights and certainly rarely granting liberty or the opportunity for the slaves to pursue their own happiness.
  • This criticism was obviously valid and had been something that had been discussed heatedly by the Continental Congress.  The original declaration even included a section concerning slavery, blaming the British for their part in the original slave trade and listing this as a reason the colonists no longer wanted to be part of Great Britain.  It is generally thought that many in the congress would have liked to see the end of slavery with the birth of the nation; they were quite aware of the hypocrisy of “all men are created equal…” and the injustice of slavery.  However, this would have devastated certain of the colonies economically which could have crippled the burgeoning nation; thus, the issue was pushed aside for a later generation to address (note: this wasn’t the only key point in American history where many American leaders felt that slavery should be abolished and came very close to doing so; but  in the end, for economics’ sake, chose to push the issue aside and let another generation deal with this great American hypocrisy).
  • There are still 26 of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence that still exist today; 21 of which are owned by American institutions; 2 are owned by British institutions; and 3 are owned privately.  These surviving copies, printed on paper, are collectively known as “the Dunlap broadside”.  They are a subset of an original 150-200 copies printed on paper on the night of July 4th and thus are considered to be “original” copies, distinguished from the many thousands of copies that have been made since that date.
  • The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence occurred in the yard of Independence Hall on July 8th, read by John Nixon.
  • The current case that contains the Declaration of Independence is made from titanium and aluminum with gold plated framing and a bullet proof window so people can see it.  The inside is airtight and filled with argon gas and a controlled amount of humidity.  The Charters of Freedom and the Bill of Rights are also encased in this exact same way.
  • Being the head of the Continental Congress, John Hancock was the first to sign the document, doing so with a flourish, which has since made his name synonymous with “signature”.
  • There is currently a hand print on the bottom left of the Declaration of Independence.  Nobody knows how or when it got there.  Unfortunately, attempting to clean it off would very likely damage the fragile document.
  • Jefferson and the other four delegates charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence leaned heavily on the English Declaration of Rights as a model for their own declaration.  The English Declaration of Rights of 1689 formally ended the reign of King James II.
  • Following the announcement of the Declaration and the eventual parchment version being signed, the document itself was neglected after the revolution.  Even early celebrations of Independence Day ignored the original statement of that independence.  It was the act that was thought important, not the text.  Indeed, even while drafting the constitution, the document itself wasn’t used as a source, in terms of ideals, for how it should be drawn up.   Even the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789 borrowed from George Mason’s Declaration of Rights instead of the Declaration of Independence’s view on this, even though Jefferson himself was in Paris and was consulted on the French Declaration.  It wasn’t until political parties formed that anyone really thought anything of the actual text.   Once that happened, Jefferson’s supporters used the fact that he wrote it to their political advantage.  This created heated back and forth over the document’s authorship itself and eventually resulted in it being more prominently thought of in terms of importance of the text.  However, even then, it wasn’t until the 1850s that the document itself became important for more than historical reasons.  Once again centering around the “all men are created equal…” paragraph, now being used to proclaim worker’s, women’s, and once again, slave’s rights.
  • The latter usage of the text was taken up by Abraham Lincoln in 1854.  He felt that the founding fathers expected that slavery would be a dying institution in the new United States.   He also felt that the Declaration of Independence was one of the founding documents of the nation and not just a simple statement declaring secession from Britain.  He used this view frequently in his arguments against slavery: “Nearly eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’ … Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. … Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. … If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union: but we shall have saved it, as to make, and keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”  Lincoln’s view that the Declaration was one of the founding documents in terms of defining the nation eventually became the nation’s view, even though it was not predominately so before him.  This was an extremely important development in America’s history in terms of interpreting the constitution.  Many things in the constitution were previously seen one way, but in the light of the text in the Declaration of Independence being now considered important, were now seen another way.
  • July 4th, 1054 saw the brightest known super-nova’s light reach Earth.  This dead star is now the Crab Nebula.  It shone brightly in the sky from July 4th, 1054 to July 27th, 1054.
  • Jefferson didn’t just write the Declaration of Independence, he also re-wrote the Bible to his liking.  Jefferson didn’t hold with the supernatural elements of the Bible.  He thus set about making his own Jeffersonian translation that basically excluded every part he didn’t agree with.  In his view, separating the wheat from the chaff.
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  • If that happened today, they would have twitted the entire constitution.

  • Concerning the handprint on the Declaration of Independence…why would you want to clean it off? Besides possibly damaging the document, could it be that the handprint belongs to one of the signers thus making it even more historically significant?

  • I do not accept, as authorititative and binding (on us readers) the major claim, made in this article, concerning July 4. I urge readers to keep an open mind, realizing that the writer of the above article has made too many errors to count (on various pages of this Internet site).

    The following quotation is from an online encyclopedia’s article about the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

    “Although most [modern] historians have accepted the argument that the Declaration was not signed on July 4, … legal historian Wilfred Ritz wrote in 1986 that ‘the historians and scholars are wrong.’ Ritz argued that the … Declaration was signed by Congress on July 4, as Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin had stated, and that it was implausible that all three men had been mistaken. … Ritz argued that about thirty-four delegates signed the Declaration on July 4, and that the others signed on or after August 2.”

    [Thank you, Mr. Ritz, for speaking out against the self-proclaimed demythologizers of our pathologically skeptical era.]

    • Daven Hiskey

      @J.F. Gecik: The document that was ultimately signed wasn’t created until July 19th. It is not possible to have signed something that didn’t exist yet.

    • your brain is cabbage!!!

  • The reason that Franklin did not write the Declaration of Independence had nothing to do with his supposed propensity for inserting satire in everything he wrote. For one thing, that statement is simply not true: just read Franklin’s most famous work, Poor Richard’s Almanack. Most importantly, Franklin wrote primarily for the common people; hence his popularity. Jefferson and John Adams, the only other serious candidate for the task of writing the first draft of the Declaration, were practicing lawyers, and the bulk of the Declaration of Independence, everything after the first two famous paragraphs, was framed as a legal argument, a justification based on “natural law” for the unprecedented action of colonies declaring independence from their ruler. Without that justification, the declaration was unquestionably an act of treason. Both Adams and Jefferson had written copiously in connection with the liberty movement as well as in their profession of law. Both were well-qualified. Adams thought Jefferson would do a better job and that is why Jefferson was chosen as draftsman.

  • Bernard Sussman

    The famous story of John Hancock signing large “So King George can read it without his spectacles” is just a story – it wasn’t signed until many days later — and not even all the signatures were collected in the summer of 1776. Some didn’t sign their names until more than a year had passed.

    The true “original” may be a marked up copy sent to printer John Dunlap, who printed a broadside version of the Declaration by the many hundreds – of which only 26 are known to exist today. The parchment version was done later (and has some errors, British was misspelled “Brittish”), signed much later, and then very much faded by a copying method that stole tiny amounts of ink when making copies and by being framed and hung in sunlight in someone’s office.

  • If seen this site get things wrong before, but…that doesn’t mean everyone in the comment section has it write either.

  • W. Heidi Hamilton