History of Independence Day: Was the Declaration of Independence really signed on July 4, 1776?

Declaration of IndependenceHISTORY OF INDEPENDENCE DAY

Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, celebrates the adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, of the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the severance of the American colonies’ allegiance to Great Britain. It is the most significant secular holiday in the United States, observed in all the states, territories, and dependencies.

Was it really signed on July 4, 1776?


Although it is assumed that the Second Continental Congress unanimously signed the document on the 4th of July, not all delegates were present, and there were no signers at all, contrary to the theatrical musical 1776. Here is what really happened.


Resolution for the Declaration of Independence

The congressional delegate from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, introduced in the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, a resolution

“that…body declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from allegiance to or dependence on the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain…”


Committee of Five on the Declaration of Independence

Committee of Five

Committee of Five

On June 10, a Committee of Five featuring Thomas Jefferson (the actual scribe) was appointed to prepare a declaration suitable to the occasion if the Virginia resolution was adopted. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams revised Jefferson’s version before it went to Congress, where they did some editing of their own.

The other committee members were Robert R. Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Congress also removed a long section Jefferson had penned condemning King George III for inflicting the slave trade on America. This is somewhat ironic, considering Jefferson was the second-largest holder of slaves in his county.


Approval of the Declaration of Independence

Congress approved the resolution on July 2; the Declaration composed by Jefferson and amended by his committee was adopted on July 4. That evening, John Hancock ordered Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to print 200 broadside copies of the agreed-upon Declaration that was signed by him as President and Charles Thomson as Secretary. These were distributed to members of Congress and distributed to the 13 colonies and elsewhere. The Declaration was read in the yard of the statehouse on July 8. New York did not even vote on it until July 9. The signing was even more gradual, and it is partially misleading to speak of the “fifty-six original signers of the Declaration of Independence.”

By August 6, most of those whose names were on the document had signed, but at least six signatures were attached later. One signer, Thomas McKean, did not attach his name until 1781! Some of those who signed were not even in Congress when the Declaration was adopted, and some who voted for it in Congress never got around to signing it.

Robert R. Livingston was one of the five original committee members. He helped frame the document and voted for it, but never signed it.

The Founding Fathers recognized the gravity of signing this document. John Adams said, on July 3, 1776:

I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration.”


Celebration of Independence Day

The first anniversary of the Declaration was observed only in Philadelphia, PA, by the adjournment of Congress, a ceremonial dinner, bonfires, the ringing of bells, and fireworks.

In 1788, after the requisite number of states had adopted the Constitution, Philadelphia celebrated July 4 with elaborate festivities, including a grand procession. It has been a tradition to celebrate it on July 4th, despite other dates of completion, in large part because that is the date on the document.


Recognition of the Declaration of Independence

Treaty of Paris

Treaty of Paris

However, it was not until September 3, 1783, that major European countries recognized the end of the American Revolutionary War. The Treaty of Paris was signed between the British and the US at Hotel d’York in Paris.

The Peace of Paris (or the Treaties of Versailles) recognized the end of the American Revolutionary War, among other European issues. It was signed between the representatives of King George III of England and representatives of France’s King Louis XVI, Spain’s King Charles III, and the States-General of the Dutch Republic.


Observance of Independence Day

Boston, Massachusetts, first observed the day in 1783, and subsequently, this celebration replaced that of the Boston Massacre on March 5. The custom spread to other cities and states, where parades, patriotic oratory, military displays, and fireworks marked the day. Today, games and athletic contests, picnics, patriotic programs and pageants, and community fireworks of pyrotechnic expertise are characteristic of the 4th of July. So, too, are attendance at baseball games, flying of the American flag, consumption of hot dogs, and imbibing of inebriating fluids.


Hollywood Tie-in to Independence Day

Several years ago, the actress Reese Witherspoon recorded a tribute to the Declaration of Independence document when a lost copy was discovered, folded between the canvas and frame of a picture. This audiovisual presentation went on a nationwide road trip with the document. This was one of John Dunlap’s original 200 broadsides.

Why did she do this? She claims she is a descendant of John Witherspoon, the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. He himself is a descendant of John Knox, the Scottish Reformer who studied under the Swiss Reformer John Calvin in Geneva.



John Witherspoon and the Declaration of Independence

The Scottish-born Presbyterian minister was also President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Among his students were Founding Fathers like Arron Burr and James Madison, along with 37 judges, 10 Cabinet officers, 12 members of the original Continental Congress, 28 Senators, and 49 US members of Congress.

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” spent an extra year at college following graduation to study theology with Witherspoon. He would incorporate Witherspoon’s teachings on republicanism and “checks and balances” in government. Witherspoon was the only active clergyman and college president to sign the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He also supported the ratification of the Constitution of the United States.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Maria on October 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    This was so helpful for my history project

  2. John Elliott on July 1, 2016 at 11:02 am

    I recently read that the meeting to approve Jefferson’s document was plagued by nitpicking but that the vote to accept it and adjourn happened early because Independence Hall had a cloud of horseflies from a nearby stable. The day had been hot and the windows were opened.

    • Bill Petro on July 2, 2016 at 2:06 pm


      I’m not familiar with that story. However, when I was in Paris 2 years ago, going to my favorite museum, Musee D’Orsay, I noticed for the first time (as it has only been there 8 years) a statue nearby of Thomas Jefferson. But he was not facing the Musee. Read the article again to find out what he was facing.


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