Everybody knows that the Fourth of July celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the historic document by means of which the 13 American colonies severed their political connections with Great Britain and declared themselves to be the United States of America.
Except that the Declaration wasn’t signed on the Fourth of July. The colonists formally declared their independence on July 2, which John Adams promptly called “the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” predicting that it “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”
As Independence Day draws near, 24/7 Wall St. is taking a look who the 56 signers of the Declaration were. We drew on sources such as USHistory.org, the website of the non-profit Philadelphia-based Independence Hall Association to compile our list.
It was on July 4, however, that the Continental Congress approved the final text of the Declaration — after jointly making some 86 changes in the draft composed by Thomas Jefferson and four colleagues.
But that still wasn’t when this seminal document of our nation was signed. That happened, for the most part, on Aug. 2 — but at least five signers didn’t affix their signatures to the Declaration until the following weeks.
All those who signed the Declaration were delegates to the Second Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia. The Congress was a convention of representatives from the various colonies. The first one, held in 1774, sought to ease rising tensions between the British and the colonists, while safeguarding the rights of the latter.
The second Congress, which met from 1775 through 1781, was more radical, and ultimately decided that full independence from Great Britain was essential. Thomas Jefferson was charged with overseeing the drafting of a declaration to that effect. (Jefferson, of course, went on to become our third president, and is in the top ten when historians rank every president.)
The Congress also appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, which was already involved in battles with the British in what grew into the Revolutionary War — one of the most expensive wars in U.S. history.
There’s little doubt what occasion Pennsylvania would claim in a listing of the most important historical event in every state.
The majority of the delegates — all of them men — who signed the Declaration had been born in one of the 13 colonies, though a few were native to Great Britain or Ireland. Many were gentleman farmers, and many — sometimes the same ones — were attorneys. Most were well-to-do, though some lost their fortunes during the Revolutionary War or subsequently.
Some of the signers are world famous — among them Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams — and some are obscure. The majority owned slaves — 41 of the 56, according to one study — though there were also ardent abolitionists among their number. Some came to bad ends; one lived to the age of 95.
Whoever they were, one thing is certain: These 56 signers put their lives and livelihoods on the line for the cause of American independence, and without their actions we’d have nothing to celebrate as a nation — on the Fourth of July or any other date.
Information about the signers of the Declaration of Independence was drawn from USHistory.org, which is the website of the non-profit Philadelphia-based Independence Hall Association, as well as from the websites of The Society of the Descendents of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.