Making It Official: The Day the Declaration of Independence Was Signed

Declaration of Independence, Dunlap Broadside1776 00301_2000_001
John Dunlap printed copies of the Declaration of Independence in his Philadelphia shop on the night of July 4, 1776. The Dunlap Broadside does not include the names of all the signers. (National Archives Identifier 301682)

Today’s post comes from Andrew Grafton in the National Archives History Office.

Independence Day in the United States is celebrated on July 4, the day the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence.

If you ask just about any American, they can correctly identify that date.

What is less commonly known, however, is that it is unlikely that the Declaration itself was signed on July 4. In fact, it is probable that the majority of the delegates to Congress didn’t sign the document for nearly a month after ratification.

Today, a majority of U.S. historians agree that the document was in fact signed on August 2, 1776.

This date was initially a matter of dispute.

In the years after independence, reports from a variety of Founding Fathers asserted that the document was signed on the same day as it was adopted. According to the notes taken by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and others, the Declaration was signed on July 4, 1776.

Goddard Broadside
This broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence by Mary Goddard does not include Thomas McKean’s name. January 1777. (Library of Congress)

However, in the decades that followed, more facts came to light that called this date into question. Some delegates, such as Thomas McKean in 1796, disputed the idea that the signing had taken place on July 4, as many of the signers of the document weren’t even in Philadelphia until later in that month.

One such anomaly is the signature of McKean himself.

When the Continental Congress ordered an official reproduction of the Declaration for mass production and distribution in January 1777, his name was absent from the list of signers. It is possible that McKean didn’t sign until years later.

Multiple delegates refused to sign the document on principle of disagreement, including John Dickinson, James Duane, Robert Livingston, and John Jay.

Others signed as a show of support for the new nation, even if they disagreed with the sentiments of the document.

Detail of the Barry Faulkner mural, the Declaration of Independence. Pictured from left to right are: Stephen Hopkins, Samuel Adams, and Thomas McKean, 10/27/1936. (National Archives Identifier 7820683)

During the late 20th century, the debate over the exact signing date reemerged, with some historians asserting that the records of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin couldn’t all have mistaken the date of the signing.

These views, however, are a definitive minority in the field of American history.

Though Americans celebrate July 4 as Independence Day, August 2 still carries historical impact as the day that the majority of the 56 signers committed “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the cause of American independence.

To learn more about the physical history of the Declaration of Independence and its signing, read the National Archives’ history of the Declaration.

To see the names of the signers yourself, along with many more documents and artifacts from U.S. history, come visit the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

00300_2003_001 Declaration of Independence engrossed copy
The Declaration of Independence on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building, signed August 2, 1776. (National Archives ID 1419123)

2 thoughts on “Making It Official: The Day the Declaration of Independence Was Signed

  1. John Dunlap actually printed around 200 copies of the declaration of which only 26 are known to survive: one in the US National Archives and four in the UK National Archives. This includes the one eventually given to Earl Howe, commander of the British forces, in New York harbour in early August 1776.

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