The Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Who voted for the Declaration of Independence?
Congress voted on June 10, 1776 to create a committee to draft a declaration, and on June 11 appointed Thomas Jefferson (VA), John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Roger Sherman (CT), and Robert Livingston (NY) to that committee. July 1 was designated to be decision day on the Virginia motion for Independence after months of going back and forth over whether to reconcile or become independent. The resolution passed on 9-2-1-1 vote. Jefferson’s recollection was that “S. Carolina and Pennsylvania voted against it. Delaware having but two members present, they were divided” and the delegates from New York abstained because their instructions were to seek reconciliation. “Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina then requested the determination might be put off to the next day, as he believed his colleagues, though they disapproved of the resolution, would then join in it for the sake of unanimity.” Virginia’s motion for independence was finally approved by twelve out of thirteen states in the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. Both South Carolina and Pennsylvania changed their vote to yes and according to Jefferson there was a price to pay: the language of the Declaration was toned down and the explicit condemnation of slavery was removed. Caesar Rodney rode through the night and broke the deadlock in the Delaware delegation. And the New York delegates wrote to the New York Provincial Congress requesting that they be permitted to vote for Independence. No wonder that John Adams thought that July 2 was a day of celebration. Delegates then turned their attention to debate the language of the Declaration of Independence. Multiple printed drafts were in circulation among delegates during the debates on July 2-4 (see for example Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence as recorded in his Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress), but all of these printed draft versions have been lost. After editing the language, the Declaration of Independence was approved by Congress on July 4, 1776.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, “[T]he 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.” This claim has been challenged by a statement made by delegate Thomas McKean, who later wrote that no one signed a copy of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. It seems that Jefferson may have meant that all delegates present on July 4 “signed” or “signaled” or “indicated” their approval of the document, except Dickinson whose vote was no longer needed for Pennsylvania to vote yes, rather than “signed” in the sense of writing their names.
Which delegates were present on July 4 for the vote? The Secretary for Congress, Charles Thomson, did not record the day-by-day attendance in Congress and only sporadically noted when delegates arrived or left. Some evidence can be pieced together from other sources, such as letters or delegate credentials issued by state legislatures. Based on the limited evidence, and in light of Jefferson’s note on the debates on July 4, it is likely that between 34 and 41 delegates were present to approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4. In the near future we plan to create an attendance chart, based on available sources, of which delegates were present in Congress throughout 1776.
Why was the Declaration of Independence signed on August 2, 1776?
Why did delegates sign a copy of the Declaration of Independence on August 2 rather than July 4? One must consider certain difficulties and complications, such as the manner in which delegations in Congress received authorization to approve independence, the varying attendance of certain delegates, and even the process of creating a formal document for signing.
The manner in which delegates in Congress were authorized to vote for independence greatly complicated the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is important to remember that votes in the Continental Congress were taken by state delegations as a whole – one state, one vote. When the votes were taken on independence on July 2 and on the Declaration of Independence on July 4, every state delegation in Congress except New York had received approval to vote for independence. Each state had held a convention, authorized by their state legislature, to debate the question of independence. State legislatures then notified their delegations in Congress once their state convention had approved independence. On July 2, therefore, the New York delegation did not vote on the question of independence, and it is likely that its delegates were not present on July 4 for the vote on the Declaration of Independence.
On July 4, Congress resolved, “That the declaration be authenticated and printed [and that] the committee appointed to prepare the declaration, superintend and correct the press.” The Dunlap broadsides were printed on the night of July 4, 1776, by order of Congress, by John Dunlap, from his shop near the corner of 2nd and Market Streets in Philadelphia. [See map of Philadelphia]. This first printed version of the Declaration of Independence was printed on a broad piece of paper and only on one side. 200 copies were printed and sent to the states and the army. According to the Journal, copies were “sent to the several assemblies, conventions, and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops” with the purpose “that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army.”
The delay in approval for the New York delegation complicated both the signing and the printing of the Declaration of Independence. The original handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence approved on July 4 included following title: “IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776. THE UNANIMOUS DECLARATION OF THE THIRTEEN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” New York, however, had not voted on July 2 or July 4, so the “unanimous” language in the title of the original handwritten version was not, strictly speaking, accurate. The title in the Dunlap Broadside, therefore, was changed to read, “IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776. A DECLARATION BY THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, IN GENERAL CONGRESS ASSEMBLED.” This printed version of the Declaration of Independence was signed only by President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson.
This suggests that Congress was restraining itself in the Dunlap Broadside to publishing what was strictly true and legal. In this first public version of the Declaration of Independence, the language of “unanimous” had to be removed, since New York had not yet approved independence. This also likely explains why only the signatures of Hancock and Thomson were included on the Dunlap Broadside, rather than of all delegates who voted for the Declaration of Independence on July 4. The omission of the signatures of New York delegates would have been glaringly obvious to the public; furthermore, the omission of New York’s signatures would be permanently on the public record, despite the fact that New York delegates had actually wanted to vote “yes” on both independence and the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, Congress anticipated that approval for independence from the New York convention would arrive very shortly after July 4. The form of the Dunlap Broadside, therefore, reveals that it is a temporary – one might say temporizing – act on the part of Congress, which would allow for the immediate distribution of the Declaration of Independence to the public, but also ultimately give New York delegates the opportunity to sign a later copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the language of “unanimous” after they had received legal permission to do so.
That, of course, is exactly what happened. The New York state convention approved independence on July 9, and the New York delegates in Congress received written permission from their state legislature to approve independence on July 15.
Matlack “Parchment” Copy
After New York had approved independence, Congress passed, on July 19, the following resolution: “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.” “Fairly engross” at that time meant to create an official document written in large script. Clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, Timothy Matlack, printed this version of Declaration of Independence by hand (Matlack was also influential in drafting Pennsylvania’s state constitution).
This handwritten copy, known as the Matlack Parchment version of the Declaration of Independence, reinserted the following original language in the title: “IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776. THE UNANIMOUS DECLARATION OF THIRTEEN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” – since New York had now officially approved independence. The delay after July 4 was the necessary result of having an official version “fairly engrossed” with the language of “UNANIMOUS” that could be legally signed by all state delegations in Congress, including New York. This version signed on August 2 thus highlights rather than obscures the importance of the events of July 4, 1776 – the Declaration of Independence had been restored to its original form of July 4th with the reinsertion of the language of “unanimous.”
This copy would be signed by 49 delegates on August 2, 1776, and by seven more delegates over the next few months, as delegates arrived in Philadelphia after election or re-election to Congress. These delegates signed the Matlack Parchment version between August 2 and either November 1776 or January 1777 (the exact date of the last signer, Thomas McKean, is uncertain). The delegates signed their names starting with the New Hampshire delegates in the first column on the right, and then moved from North to South.
A Mystery in the Journals of Congress
The entry for July 4 in the Journals of the Continental Congress presents us with something of a mystery. It reads, “The foregoing declaration was, by order of Congress, engrossed, and signed by the following members,” which is followed the names of all 56 delegates who would later sign the Matlack Parchment version of the Declaration of Independence. However, this includes the names of delegates who were not present in Congress on July 4. This means that the Journal entry for July 4 was amended later – likely in the early 1820s by the editors of the Journals of Congress as the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached. Or perhaps even later when Washington Chauncey Ford et al edited the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 issued by the Government Printing Office between 1904 and 1937. The fact that the signers are added to the Journal on July 4 rather than August 2 highlights the act of approving the Declaration of Independence rather than simply the act of signing it. In other words, by including the names of all 56 signers in the Journal entry for July 4, the editor combined the importance of both approving and signing. It is worth noting that July 4 was accepted as THE day of Independence very early on. The Second Continental Congress in 1777 observed July 4, 1776 as the day of Independence. This is the first year after Independence had been declared. And the Constitutional Convention of 1787 also observed July 4. The last entry in Madison’s Debates for Monday, July 2 reads: “That time might be given to the Committee [the Gerry Committee to draft the Connecticut Compromise], and to such as choose to attend the celebrations on the anniversary of Independence the Convention adjourned till Thursday.” Some historians claim that the fact that Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, created a subsequent mythology about the importance of July 4. But we have shown that July 4 was important from the very founding itself.
On January 18, 1777, Congress commissioned Mary Katherine Goddard of Maryland (Congress had moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore in December 1776 because of the war) to print a copy of the Declaration for the public that would, for the first time, include the signatures of the signers.
This version of the Declaration of Independence, known as the Goddard Broadside, included the heading, “IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776. THE UNANIMOUS DECLARATION OF THE THIRTEEN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” However, it only listed the printed names of 55 signers. Why is one signer missing? It could be that the printer, Mary Katherine Goddard, made a mistake in listing the names. It is more likely, however, that she included the names of all the delegates who had signed the Matlack Parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence between August 2 and November, 1776. Whose name is missing? Thomas McKean of Delaware is missing from the list of signers in the Goddard Broadside, which suggests that he did not sign the Matlack Parchment copy until after January 18, 1777. In the Goddard Broadside, John Hancock remains at the top and center, but Secretary Charles Thomson is moved to the bottom of the page, and the other signers are made more prominent. Hancock also signs at the bottom as President (his name appears on the Goddard Broadside in three places). The date next to “In Congress” on the document is not July 4, but January 18, 1777.
Who signed – and did not sign?
Who signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776 – and who did not sign that day? It is difficult to conclusively answer that question. The record of attendance in Congress is complicated by the manner in which delegates were appointed to Congress by their state legislatures. Annual appointments of delegates by state legislatures occurred at different times of the year in 1776 – some in the spring, some in the summer, and some in late fall. From the currently available records, however, we can confirm that some delegates were present or absent on August 2, 1776.
There were several elected delegates who were absent from Congress on July 4 but who signed the Declaration of Independence on or after August 2. Richard Henry Lee, who had introduced the motion for independence in June, and George Wythe were both in Virginia and not present for the votes on July 2 and 4. Lee returned to Congress on August 27, and Wythe returned between August 2 and September 14; both probably signed the Matlack Parchment version of the Declaration of Independence in September. Delegates Elbridge Gerry (MA), Oliver Wolcott (CT), William Hooper (NC), and Samuel Chase (MD) were away on other business on July 4 but returned and signed in August. Lewis Morris of New York was not authorized to sign on July 4 but returned and signed in August. And Thomas McKean of Delaware, as noted above, returned to Congress and signed either in September, 1776 or January, 1777. George Read of Delaware voted against independence on July 2, and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania abstained on the vote for independence, but both signed the Declaration of Independence in August. Seven signers had not been elected as delegates to Congress until after July 4: William Williams of Connecticut, Charles Carroll of Carrollton from Maryland, and Benjamin Rush, George Clymer, James Smith, and George Taylor of Pennsylvania signed in August, and Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire signed in early November of 1776. Some delegates to Congress who favored independence did not sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2. For example, as delegates from New York, Robert Livingston (who had been on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence), George Clinton, and Henry Wisner had not been authorized by their state convention to approve independence, and these delegates did not return to Congress after their terms had expired between July 4 and August 2. Another New York delegate, John Alsop, opposed independence and resigned from Congress on July 4. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania also opposed independence, resigned from Congress on July 2, and did not return to Congress until 1779. Two other delegates from Pennsylvania – Charles Humphreys and Thomas Willing – opposed independence, were not present on July 4, and were replaced in the Pennsylvania delegation before August 2. John Rogers of Maryland voted for independence on July 2 but was away from Congress on July 4 and did not return as a delegate in August.
John Quincy Adams and the Stone Engraving
The hand-printed Matlack Parchment version of the Declaration of Independence, which included the names of all 56 signers, still exists but is barely legible because of improper storage and care. Throughout the Revolutionary War, this copy moved with Congress every time it relocated to avoid the British military. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence drew near, the document was quite damaged and already noticeably fading. In 1820, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned printer William J. Stone to create an engraving that was meant to reproduce the Matlack Parchment copy as closely as possible. At this time, only three signers of the Declaration were still alive – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Stone’s engraving was finished in 1823 and Congress authorized 200 copies to be printed on parchment. This is the version of the Declaration of Independence most of us are familiar with today, as all modern printings of the Declaration are reproduced from the Stone engraving rather than the Matlack Parchment copy. The 1823 printing includes a line at the top stating that it was printed at the order of Adams: “Engraved by W.I. STONE for the Dept. of State by order/ of J.Q. ADAMS Secy of State July 4th 1823….”
John Hancock is presented as the first to sign, with his large printed name right under the text and in the center of the page. Secretary Charles Thomson’s name is not found on this version. The Stone version includes all 56 signers, but there are six columns of signers rather than the four that were found on the Matlack “Parchment” version. Beginning with New Hampshire, the signers’ names start on the right column of the document working geographically from the northern states to the southern states. Though the names of the states are not mentioned, by following this pattern one can figure out which delegate is from which state. The signatures of two of the three New Hampshire delegates – Josiah Bartlett and William Whipple – begin the list in column six. What about Matthew Thornton, the third signer from New Hampshire? He arrived in Philadelphia in the Fall of 1776 and was granted permission to sign the Declaration. There was no room for him to sign in the New Hampshire section, however, since Samuel Adams from Massachusetts had signed very close to the signature of William Whipple. This is why Thornton’s signature appears at the end of the Connecticut signatures at the bottom of column six. The signatures of the five delegates from New Jersey are at the bottom of column five, and the signatures of the four New York delegates are at the top of column five. This is followed in column four with the three signatures of the Delaware and the nine Pennsylvania delegates. Column three contains the signatures of the seven Virginia delegates and the four Maryland delegates. Wythe, “the Godfather of the Declaration,” heads the list ahead of Richard Henry Lee who introduced the Resolution for Independence. Wythe and Lee both signed after August 2, but a place was reserved for them at the top of the Virginia delegation. The signatures of the delegates from South Carolina and North Carolina are in column two, and Georgia, the southernmost state, ends the list with column one on the left.
|Name||State||2nd Cont. Cong||Trumbull Painting||Pine Painting||Faulkner Painting||Vote on 2 July 1776||Probably approved on 4 July 1776||Signed 2 August 1776||Signed after 2 August 1776||Notes|
|Matthew Thornton||NH||1776-1777||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X||Arrived in Congress November 4. Probably signed in November.|
|Robert Treat Paine||MA||1775-1776||X||Yes||Yes||X|
|Elbridge Gerry||MA||1776-1780||X||Yes||Away||X||Away on July 4; Returned to Congress September 2, 1776; probably signed September 3.|
|Stephen Hopkins||RI||1775-1776||X||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Claims to have signed on July 4: "My hand trembles, but heart does not." (apocryphal)|
|William Ellery||RI||1776-1781||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Elected May 4, 1776, attended May 16, 1776 (presented credentials)|
|William Williams||CT||1776-1777||X||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X|
|Oliver Wolcott||CT||1776-1778||X||Away||Away||X||Returned October 1. Probably signed in October.|
|William Floyd||NY||1775-1776||X||X||Did not vote||Did not vote||X|
|Philip Livingston||NY||1775-1778||X||Did not vote||Did not vote||X|
|Francis Lewis||NY||1775-1779||X||Did not vote||Did not vote||X|
|Lewis Morris||NY||1775-1777||X||Away||Away||X||Returned to Congress after August 2, before September 8. Likely signed in September.|
|Richard Stockton||NJ||1776||X||Yes||Yes||X||Arrived June 28, 1776|
|John Witherspoon||NJ||1776-1781||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Arrived June 28, 1776|
|Francis Hopkinson||NJ||1776||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Arrived June 28, 1776|
|John Hart||NJ||1776||Yes||Yes||X||Arrived June 28, 1776|
|Abraham Clark||NJ||1776-1778||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Present July 4, confirmed in letter to Elias Dayton of that date|
|Benjamin Rush||PA||1776-1777||X||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X|
|John Morton||PA||1775-1776||Yes||Yes||X||He was the tie-breaking vote in favor of Independence in PA delegation|
|George Clymer||PA||1776-1777||X||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X|
|James Smith||PA||1776-1778||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X|
|George Taylor||PA||1776||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X|
|George Ross||PA||1775-1777||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X||Arrived July 20, 1776|
|Thomas McKean||DE||1775-1776||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Claims no one signed on July 4, but it is possible he was not there on July 4 (headed DE constitutional committee). Returned to Congress briefly in September, 1776. Returned in January, 1777. Signature is missing from Goddard Broadside.|
|Charles Carroll of Carrollton||MD||1776||X||X||X||Not a delegate||Not a delegate||X||Is not appointed to Congress until July 5, 1776|
|George Wythe||VA||1775-1776||X||X||Away||Away||X||Returned to Congress after August 2, before September 14. Probably signed in September.|
|Richard Henry Lee||VA||1775-1779||X||X||Away||Away||X||Returned to Congress August 27, 1776. Probably signed in September. Elected August 11, 1775 and June 20, 1776. Attended March 11-June 13, 1776 and August 27, 1776-February 1777.|
|Thomas Jefferson||VA||1775-1776||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Elected August 11, 1775 and June 20, 1776; attended May 14-September 2, 1776|
|Benjamin Harrison||VA||1775-1778||X||X||Yes||Yes||X||Elected August 11, 1775; attended May 16-August 10, 1776.|
|Thomas Nelson, Jr.||VA||1775-1777||X||Yes||Yes||X|
|Francis Lightfoot Lee||VA||1775-1779||Yes||Yes||X||Elected August 15, 1775 and June 20, 1776; attended January 1, 1776-February, 1777|
|Carter Braxton||VA||1776||Yes||Yes||X||Elected December 15, 1775; attended February 23-August 2, 1776.|
|Edward Rutledge||SC||1775-1776||X||X||Yes||Yes||Urged the delay in voting to July 4|
|Thomas Heyward, Jr.||SC||1776-1778||X||Yes||Yes||X|
|Thomas Lynch, Jr.||SC||1775-1776||X||Yes||Yes||X|
Commentary written and chart compiled by Christopher Burkett and Gordon Lloyd.