As every American knows — or should — The Fourth of July is the day citizens of the United States celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress.
The revolutionary — in every sense of the word — document formally severed our ties with mother-country England by famously proclaiming that "these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States." But there are many circumstances surrounding Congress' adoption of the Declaration that are not so familiar. For example, the Founding Fathers actually voted for "independency" on July 2, which Founder and future president John Adams believed should have been declared a national holiday instead of the Fourth.
Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, was a member of the Committee of Five, which drafted the document beforehand so it would be ready if the vote was ultimately successful. But even after independence was approved, it took Congress a couple of days to ratify the text. Some things never change. The Declaration was ultimately signed by 56 delegates, but whether or not they all added their names to the bottom of the world-changing 24-by-29-inch parchment on July 4 is subject to debate.
Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams all wrote later that the Declaration was signed by Congress on the Fourth. But in 1796, signer Thomas McKean disputed those assertions, pointing out that several of the signers were absent, including some who had not yet been elected to Congress.
Historians generally accept McKean's version, arguing that the famous "original" copy of the Declaration was created after July 19 and not signed by Congress until August 2.
One signature almost certainly added to the Committee's "engrossed" —professionally handwritten — draft of the Declaration on July 4 was that of John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Hancock's flamboyant signature has became iconic, and the phrase "John Hancock" is still used today as a synonym for signing something.
In a famous anecdote, which may or may not be true, Hancock supposedly said that Congress, having signed the Declaration, must now "all hang together." In a grim joke suggesting the likely fate of those found guilty of treason, Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have replied: "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Here are some other Declaration of Independence facts supplied by the National Archives:
∙ Yes, there really is writing on the back of the Declaration of Independence, but it is not invisible, nor does it include a map, as in the Disney feature film, "National Treasure." The writing on the back reads "Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776," and it appears on the bottom of the document, upside down.
∙ The original declaration was engrossed by a professional penman on parchment, which is animal skin specially treated with lime and stretched to create a strong, long-lasting writing medium. The first printed version, produced a few days later, is on paper and was read aloud in town squares throughout the colonies.
Page 2 of 2 - ∙ Twenty-six copies of the original printed Declaration are known to exist. These are commonly referred to as "the Dunlap broadsides." Twenty-one are owned by American institutions, two by British institutions and three by private citizens.
∙ Thomas Jefferson, a gifted prose stylist, composed most of the Declaration's language, but its content was influenced by the other members of the Committee of Five appointed to produce a draft for Congress. The committee consisted of two New Englanders, John Adams of Massachusetts and Roger Sherman of Connecticut; two men from the Middle Colonies, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York; and one southerner, Jefferson of Virginia.
∙ After a signing ceremony on August 2, 1776, the Declaration was most likely filed in the Philadelphia office of Charles Thomson, who served as secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 until 1789, when the U.S. Constitution went into effect. The Declaration probably accompanied the Continental Congress as it traveled from place to place during eight years of revolutionary conflict, often one step ahead of the British army.
∙ On Dec. 13, 1952, the Declaration, along with the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, were formally delivered into the custody of the Archivist of the United States and placed on public display in the rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. The ceremony was attended by President Harry S. Truman.
Most of the information for this article was taken from the National Archives website.