When the Continental Congress opened its session of Friday, August 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the major business of the day was to continue a somewhat moribund debate on the Articles of Confederation. An incidental piece of business was the signing, by all the delegates to the Congress, of an engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence—a matter which John Adams did not consider sufficiently important to mention in his diary of the day’s events. The great day, to him, was neither that of the signing of the Declaration, August 2, nor that of its adoption, July 4. The day “to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations [he wrote his wife] from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever more” would be July 2—the day the Congress passed a resolution affirming that the states were independent of the British crown.
There was little ceremony about the signing. Fiftyone of the fifty-six delegates were present. The other five signed the document later, in the fall of 1776, except for Thomas McKean of Delaware, who signed it sometime after January, 1777, or—according to some evidence—asiate as 1781. John Hancock, who as President of the Congress was the only delegate to sign the original document when it was adopted on July 4, was the first to sign the engrossed copy. Highly theatrical in temperament, Hancock wrote his name large and bold, commenting—so it was narrated years after—that he wanted John Bull to be able to read it without spectacles. Franklin, the oldest of the delegates, was reported to have responded to Hancock’s worried “We must be unanimous…we must all hans; together” with his breezy “Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” One of the newer members of the Congress, William Ellery of Rhode Island, who was of a literary bent, sensed the history of the occasion; he stationed himself close to the secretary in order to observe the expressions on the faces of the delegates as they affixed their signatures. “Undaunted resolution,” he reported of all of them.
There is little evidence that the actual signing struck any delegates, other than the impressionable Ellery and the dramaturgic Hancock, as one of the great moments in history. The delegation from Massachusetts, where the war had been going on for well over a year, thought it was long overdue, and Samuel Adams grumbled constantly about its lateness. Elbridge Gerry agreed with him: “We should have declared independence last winter and received a great advantage therefrom…” But Robert Morris of Pennsylvania thought it too early—“a certain premature declaration which you know I always opposed,” he wrote superciliously to Horatio Gates, the military malcontent of the Revolution.
The fifty-six men who were to achieve an immortality, the true dimensions of which seem clearly to have escaped all of them, represented no single stratum of colonial life. They were of varied backgrounds, ages, education, property, and experience. Two were brothers—the Lees. There were also two Adamses, remote cousins, and two Morrises, no kin. There were no father-son combinations, although Thomas Lynch, Jr., was sent by South Carolina to succeed his ailing father, who died on the way home from Philadelphia. And Dr. Benjamin Rush was the son-in-law of signer Richard Stockton of New Jersey.
Some of the signers, like the Adamses of Massachusetts and the Lees of Virginia, had already had broad political experience and had earned a considerable degree of fame. Some, like Franklin and George Wythe, were known and highly respected throughout the colonies. Others were unheard of, chosen as delegates because they were willing to serve—several as last-minute replacements for men who had refused to vote for independence or to support it. Some signed reluctantly. We have John Adams’ word for that: “…there were several who signed with regret, and several others with many doubts and much lukewarmedness.” But none signed casually. They were clearly aware, as Abraham Clark of New Jersey put it, that they would have “freedom or a halter.”
Sixteen of the signers had riot voted for independence when the vote was taken on July 2. The entire New York delegation of four abstained because they had no directive from their indecisive province. Robert Morris, who opposed the resolution, was intentionally absent on July 2, and five other Pennsylvania signers were elected only late in July to bolster the shaky delegation. Oliver Wolcott was home in Connecticut ill, and his replacement, William Williams, had not yet arrived in Philadelphia. Matthew Thornton, who signed the Declaration in November, was not elected to Congress until September, and Charles Carroll of Maryland was elected on July 4. William Hooper of North Carolina was absent when the independence vote was taken. All these delegates signed the Declaration without having voted for it, although only Morris had actively opposed it. Only one signer actually voted against independence—George Read of Delaware—although he later became an ardent supporter of the Declaration. (His vote, under the unit rule, would have prevented Delaware from casting its vote for independence had not Caesar Rodney, the third man of the Delaware delegation, rushed up from Dover to break the tie between Read and Thomas McKean.)
Eight of the signers were declaring the independence of a land in which they weren’t even born, and all eight of these were natives of the British Isles. The last to arrive in the colonies was Dr. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, who came from Scotland only eight years before the Declaration. All the rest of the signers were born in America.