21 QCAHMP The Signing of the Declaration

21 QCAHMP The Signing of the Declaration

We so often forget the drama that surrounded the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In this episode, I thought you might like to hear a condensed version of an article published in Scribner’s Monthly in July of 1876, which was entitled “The Story of the Signing.” If you would like to hear the complete rendition of this article, please listen to the full length edition of this podcast. You can find it on my website:

“The Story of the Signing” began as follows…

“In the days of the Continental Congress the delegates used to travel to the capital, at the beginning of each session, from their several homes, usually on horseback; fording streams, sleeping at miserable country inns, sometimes weather-bound for days, sometimes making circuits to avoid threatened dangers, sometimes accomplishing forced marches to reach Philadelphia in time for some special vote…When they arrived at Philadelphia, the delegates put up their horses, changed their riding gear for those habiliments which Trumbull has immortalized, and gathered to Independence Hall to greet their brother delegates, to interchange the gossip of the day, to repeat Dr. Franklin’s last anecdote or Francis Hopkinson’s last gibe; then proceeding, when the business of the day was opened, to lay the foundation for a new nation.

‘Before the 19th of April, 1775,’ said Jefferson, ‘I had never heard a whisper of a disposition to separate from the mothercountry.’ Washington said : ‘When I first took command of the army (July 3, 1775), I abhorred the idea of independence; but I am now fully convinced that nothing else will save us.’ It is only by dwelling on such words as these that we can measure that vast educational process which brought the American people to the Declaration of Independence, in 1776.

The Continental Congress, in the earlier months of that year, had for many days been steadily drifting on toward the distinct assertion of separate sovereignty, and had declared it irreconcilable with reason and a good conscience for the colonists to take the oaths required for the support of the Government under the Crown of Great Britain. But it was not till the 7th of June, that Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, rose and read these resolutions:

‘That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

‘That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances.

‘That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.’

These resolutions were presented under direct instructions from the Virginia Assembly, the delegates from that colony selecting Mr. Lee as their spokesman.[1] They were at once seconded, probably after previous understanding, by John Adams, of Massachusetts, — Virginia and Massachusetts being then the leading colonies. It was a bold act, for it was still doubtful whether anything better than a degrading death would await these leaders, if unsuccessful. Gage had written, only the year before, of the prisoners left in his hands at Bunker Hill, that ‘their lives were destined to the cord.’…

We know that Congress directed the Secretary to omit from the journals the names of the mover and seconder of these resolutions. The record only says, ’Certain resolutions respecting independence being moved and seconded,..The resolutions were opposed, even with bitterness, by Robert Livingston, of New York, by Dickinson and Wilson, of Pennsylvania, and by Rutledge, of South Carolina…

On Monday, the resolutions were postponed, by a vote of seven colonies against five, until that day three weeks; and it was afterward voted (June 11), ’in the meanwhile, that no time be lost, in case Congress agree thereto, that a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration to that effect.’ Of this committee, Mr. Lee would doubtless have been the chairman, had he not been already on his way to Virginia, to attend the sick-bed of his wife. His associate, Thomas Jefferson, was named in his place, together with John Adams, of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin, of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman, of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston, of New York…

This provided for the Declaration; and on the appointed Day, July 1, 1776, Congress proceeded to the discussion of the momentous resolutions. Little remains to us of the debate, and the best glimpse of the opening situation is afforded to the modern reader through a letter written by Mr. Adams to Mercy Warren, the historian,…’the Jersey delegates, appearing for the first time, desired that the question might be discussed…and the eyes of the assembly were turned upon me, and several of them said: ‘Come, Mr.

Adams; you have had the subject longer at heart than any of us, and you must recapitulate the arguments.’…’This is the first time in my life when I seriously wished for the genius and eloquence of the celebrated orators of Athens and Rome: called in this unexpected and unprepared manner to exhibit all the arguments in favor of a measure the most important, in my judgment, that had ever been discussed in civil or political society,.. ’I wish some one had remembered the speech, for it is almost the only one I ever made that I wish was literally preserved.’[2]

’John Adams,’ said Jefferson long afterward to Mr. Webster and Mr. Ticknor. ’was our Colossus on the floor. He was not graceful, nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent, but he came out occasionally with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.’ It seems a pity that no adequate specimens remain to us of this straightforward eloquence. And yet it is cause for congratulation, on the whole, that the only speech fully written out after that debate, was the leading argument for the negative.

After any great measure has been carried through, men speedily forget the objections and the objectors, and in a hundred years can hardly believe that any serious opposition was ever made. How utterly has the name of John Dickinson passed into oblivion!… The ’Farmer’s Letters’ had been reprinted in London with a preface by Dr. Franklin; they had been translated into French, and they had been more widely read in America than any patriotic pamphlet, excepting only the ’Common Sense’ of Paine. Now their author is forgotten — except through the college he founded — because he shrunk at the last moment before the storm he had aroused.… But John Adams reports that Dickinson’s mother used to say to him: ’Johnny, you will be hanged; your estate will be forfeited or confiscated; you will leave your excellent wife a widow,’ and so on; and Adams admits that if his wife and mother had held such language, it would have made him miserable at least. And it was under this restraining influence, so unlike the fearless counsels of Abby Adams, that Dickinson rose on that first of July, and spoke thus:

’I value the love of my country as I ought, but I value my country more; and I desire this illustrious assembly to witness the integrity, if not the policy, of my conduct. The first campaign will be decisive of the controversy. The Declaration will not strengthen us by one man, or by the least supply, while it may expose our soldiers to additional cruelties and outrages. Without some prelusory trials of our strength, we ought not to commit our Country upon an alternative, where to recede would be infamy, and to persist might be destruction…. Foreign aid will not be obtained but by our actions in the field, which are the only evidences of our union and vigor that will be respected… if it is the interest of any European kingdom to aid us, we shall be aided without such a declaration; if it is not, we shall not be aided with it…We ought to retain the Declaration and remain masters of our own fame and fate.’[3]

,,,notwithstanding the arguments of Mr. Dickinson, the opinions of the majority in Congress proved to be clear and strong; and the pressure from their constituencies was yet stronger. Nearly every colony had already taken separate action toward independence, and, on that first day of July, the Continental Congress adopted, in committee, the first resolution offered by the Virginia delegates. There were nine colonies in the affirmative, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voting in the negative, the latter unanimously, Delaware being divided, and New York not voting, the delegates from that colony favoring the measure, but having as yet no instructions. When the resolutions came up for final action, in convention, the next day, the state of things had changed. Dickinson and Morris of Pennsylvania had absented themselves and left an affirmative majority in the delegation; Caesar Rodney had returned from an absence and brought Delaware into line; and South Carolina, though still disapproving the resolutions, joined in the vote for the sake of unanimity, as had been half promised by Edward Rutledge, the day before. Thus, twelve colonies united in the momentous action; and New York, though not voting, yet indorsed it through a State convention within a week. The best outburst of contemporary feeling over the great event is to be found in a letter by John Adams, to his wife, dated July 3, 1776. He writes as follows:

’Yesterday the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men… I firmly believe. ’The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America, I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore…[4]

John Adams was mistaken in one prediction. It is the Fourth of July, not the Second, which has been accepted by Americans as ’the most memorable epocha.’… It was the vote of July 2d that changed the thirteen colonies into independent States; the Declaration of Independence only promulgated the fact and assigned its reasons. Had this great proclamation turned out to be a confused or ill-written document, it would never have eclipsed in fame the original Resolution, which certainly had no such weak side. But this danger was well averted, for the Declaration was to be drawn up by Jefferson, unsurpassed in his time for power of expression. He accordingly framed it; Franklin and Adams suggested a few verbal amendments; Sherman and Livingston had none to offer; and the document stood ready to be reported to the Congress…

During three days — the second, third, and fourth of July — the Declaration was debated in the Congress…. The amendments adopted by Congress have always been accounted as improvements, because tending in the direction of conciseness and simplicity; though the loss of that stem condemnation of the slave trade…. has always been regretted. The amended document was finally adopted, like the Virginia resolution, by the vote of twelve colonies, New York still abstaining. If Thomas McKean’s reminiscences, at eighty, can be trusted, it cost another effort to secure this strong vote, and Caesar Rodney had again to be sent for, to secure the Delaware delegation.

But the Declaration, being adopted, was next to be signed; and here again we come upon an equally hopeless contradiction in testimony. This same Thomas McKean wrote in 1814 to ex-President Adams, speaking of the Declaration of Independence, ‘No man signed it on that day,’[5]  — namely, July 4, 1776. Jefferson, on the other hand, writing some years later, thought that Mr. McKean’s memory had deceived him, Jefferson himself asserting, from his early notes, that ‘The Declaration was reported by the Committee, agreed to by the House, and signed by every member present, except Mr. Dickinson.’[6] But Jefferson, who was also an octogenarian, seems to have forgotten the subsequent signing of the Declaration parchment, until it was recalled to his memory, as he states, a few years later.[7] If there was a previous signing of a written document, the manuscript itself has long since disappeared; and the accepted historic opinion is that both these venerable witnesses were mistaken; that the original Declaration was signed only by the President and Secretary, John

Hancock and Charles Thompson; and that the general signing of the parchment copy took place on August 2d.[8]Jefferson used to relate,” with much merriment,” says Parton, that the final signing of the Declaration was hastened by a very trivial circumstance. Near the hall was a large stable, whence the flies issued in legions. Gentlemen were in those days peculiarly sensitive to such discomforts by reason of silk stockings; and when this annoyance, superadded to the summer heat of Philadelphia, had become intolerable, they hastened to bring the business to a conclusion. This may equally well refer, however, to the original vote; flies are flies, whether in July or August…

This is the story of the signing. Of the members who took part in that silent drama of 1776, some came to greatness in consequence, becoming Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Governors, Chief-Justices, or Judges; others came, in equally direct consequence, to poverty, flight, or imprisonment. ‘Hunted like a fox by the enemy;’ ‘a prisoner twenty-four hours without food,’ ‘not daring to remain two successive nights beneath one shelter,’… — these are the records we may find in the annals of the Revolution with respect to many a man who stood by John Hancock on that summer day to sign his name. It is a pleasure to think that not. one of them ever disgraced, publicly or conspicuously, the name he had written….”

Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, informed, and engaged in the political process. Visit my website,, with more than 500 pages of documents, products, and information designed to motivate the modern patriot.

[1] Lee’s “Life of R.H. Lee,” i., 160

[2]  Compare Works of John Adams, I, 228; iii, 58

[3] Bancroft (8vo edition), viii. 452.

[4] Familiar Letters of John Adams and his Wife; pp. 191 – 4.

[5]  “Works of John Adams,” x, 88.

[6]  “Works of Jefferson, “ i., 98.

[7] “Works of Jefferson,” i., 100.

[8] Bancroft, ix., 59; Frothingham, “Rise of the Republic,” 545.













#Declaration of Independence