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Signers of the Declaration
Historical Background

First page of Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration. (Library of Congress.)

Declaration of Independence
Facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, engraved in 1823 while the document was still in relatively good condition. (Engraving, 1823, by William Stone, Library of Congress.)

THE first official document of the American Republic and one of the most influential in human history, the Declaration expressed the spirit of human freedom and affirmed Man's universal rights. Jefferson's goal in drafting it was not, he said, to invent "new ideas" but to compose "an expression of the American mind" in a tone and spirit suitable for the momentous occasion. Stylistically, the Declaration resembled his own preamble to the Virginia constitution and contained an almost identical list of grievances. Its political philosophy, reflecting the Lockean concepts espoused by many intellectuals of the day, was certainly not new. Jefferson himself had touched on the basic points in previous writings, and in essence he echoed George Mason's "Declaration of Rights," which some of the Philadelphia newspapers had published early in June. In other words, the Declaration assimilated existing concepts into a concise statement of national doctrine.

Jefferson began the preamble with the oft-quoted and stirring words, "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . ." He then listed a series of "self-evident" truths—that "all men are created equal" and that they are "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights," particularly "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Governments, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," are instituted by men to insure these rights. When they fail to do so, it is the "right of the people to alter or to abolish" them and to institute new governments. Men should not carelessly change governments, but should only take such action after a long series of abuses and usurpations lead to "absolute despotism." Then it becomes their duty to do so. The longest portion of the Declaration is a list of colonial grievances and examples of the King's tyranny. The final section includes a restatement of Lee's resolution and a pledge by the signers of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of independence.

The Declaration first appeared in newspapers on July 9, the day after the official announcement in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress.)

ON July 4 all the Colonies except New York voted to adopt the Declaration. Congress ordered it printed and distributed to colonial officials, military units, and the press. John Hancock and Charles Thomson, President and Secretary of Congress respectively, were the only signers of this broadside copy. On July 8, outside the Pennsylvania State House, the document was first read to the public. During the ensuing celebration, people cheered, bells rang out, and soldiers paraded. At other cities, similar celebrations soon took place. Yet many citizens—the Loyalists, or Tories—could not accept independence now that it had been declared any more than previously when it had been merely a concept. Some of them would continue to dream of reconciliation. Others would flee from or be driven out of the country. In addition, another sizable group of citizens remained noncommittal, neither supporting nor opposing independence.

Four days after obtaining New York's approval of the Declaration on July 15, Congress ordered it engrossed on parchment for signature. At this time, indicative of unanimity, the title was changed from "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled" to "The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America."

pulling down statue of King George
The New York City Sons of Liberty celebrated independence by pulling down a statue of George III, which they later melted and molded into bullets. (Engraving, 1859, by John C. McRae, after Johannes A. S. Oertel, Library of Congress.)

CONTRARY to a widespread misconception, the 56 signers did not sign as a group and did not do so on July 4, 1776. The official event occurred on August 2, 1776, when 50 men probably took part. Later that year, five more apparently signed separately and one added his name in a subsequent year. Not until January 18, 1777, in the wake of Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton, did Congress, which had sought to protect the signers from British retaliation for as long as possible, authorize printing of the Declaration with all their names listed. At this time, Thomas McKean had not yet penned his name.

The most impressive signature is that of John Hancock, President of Congress, centered over the others. According to tradition, Hancock wrote boldly and defiantly so that King George III would not need spectacles to identify him as a "traitor" and double the reward for his head. The other Delegates signed in six columns, which ran from right to left. They utilized the standard congressional voting order, by colony generally from north to south: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Those who signed on August 2 undoubtedly did not realize that others would follow them and thus allowed no room to accommodate the signatures of the later six men. Two of them, George Wythe and Richard Henry Lee, found ample room above their fellow Virginians. One, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, crowded his name into the space between the Massachusetts and Rhode Island groups. Two of the others—Thomas McKean and Oliver Wolcott—signed at the bottom of columns following their State delegations. Only Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire needed to add his name separately from his colleagues—at the bottom of the first column on the right at the end of the Connecticut group.

war scene
Artist's rendition of the Battle of Germantown (October 1777). (Oil, date unknown, by Xavier D. Gratta, Valley Forge (Pa.) Historical Society.)

INDEPENDENCE had been declared; it still had to be won on the field of battle. The War for Independence was already underway, but 5 more years of struggle and bloody campaigning lay ahead. In 1781 the Colonies achieved military victory, and 2 years later Britain in the Treaty of Paris officially recognized the independence they had proclaimed in 1776. The building of the Nation could begin.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004