Was the Declaration of Independence Signed on July 4? How Memory Plays Tricks with History

Left to right: John Adams portrait by John Trumbull; Thomas Jefferson portrait by Rembrandt Peale; Thomas McKean portrait by Charles Willson Peale.

Early in 1814, thirteen years into his retirement, John Adams received a bizarre letter from Thomas McKean, a former colleague in the First and Second Continental Congresses. “I will give you an historical fact respecting the declaration of Independence, which may amuse, if not surprize,” McKean wrote. “In the printed public journal of Congress for 1776, vol. 2 it appears, that the Declaration of Independence was declared on the 4th of July 1776 by the Gentleman, whose names are there inserted, whereas no person signed it on that day.” (Emphasis added.) He then listed seven men whose names were affixed to the document but were not even present. McKean, on the other hand, had been “present in Congress on the 4th of July, & voted for Independence.” If others had signed it on that day, he certainly would have as well—and yet, mysteriously, his name had not been included on the list of signers in the July 4, 1776, entry of the Journals of Congress that was published in 1778.[1]

Really? This quintessential moment in our nation’s history—signing the Declaration of Independence—didn’t happen on July 4, 1776? That was not how John Adams remembered it. Rather than refute McKean directly (these two aging patriots had formerly quarreled but were then on good terms), Adams passed the letter on to Mercy Otis Warren, who had authored a history of the American Revolution. “I send you a curiosity,” he opened—and he then flatly rejected McKean’s claim. The Declaration had been “prepared and signed on the 4th. What are we to think of history? when in less than 40 years, such diversities appear in the memories of living persons, who were witnesses?”[2]

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration’s first draft, also recalled a signing on July 4. “The declaration of Independence was debated during the 2d, 3d, & 4th days of July & on the last of these was passed & signed,” he told an inquisitive French author a decade after the fact.[3] Benjamin Franklin agreed. On July 4, 1786, he wrote: “There is much Rejoicing in Town today, it being the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which we sign’d that day Ten Years and thereby hazarded Lives and Fortunes.”[4]

So was there a July 4th signing or not? On one side, we have three luminaries who served on the five-man committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, attended Congress on July 4, and cared deeply about its proceedings. On the other side, we have the lesser known McKean, who signed the Declaration at some later date. Check out his signature, which appears with those of Delaware’s other two delegates on the bottom of the fourth column of the National Archive’s official document: Tho M:Kean.


McKean had skin in the game. By 1814 the so-called “signers” were venerated as national heroes, but McKean’s claim to membership in that elite corps was suspect. Although his name appeared on some versions of the document, the original publication of the Declaration in the Journals of Congress did not include his name, nor did the widely circulated broadside of “an authenticated copy the Declaration of Independency,” dated July 4, 1776, that was commissioned by Congress and printed by Mary Katherine Goddard on January 18, 1777.[5]

Back in the 1790s, hoping to firm up his credentials, McKean had investigated the discrepancy. With Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, he had examined the original “secret journal,” which differed significantly from the published edition. A page had obviously been left blank in the July 4th entry, and a printed copy of the Declaration had been “stitched in” to that page at some later date.[6] Following this Declaration, McKean discovered a sentence that had been omitted from the printed edition:

Ordered, That the declaration be authenticated and printed. That the committee appointed to prepare the declaration, superintend and correct the press.[7]

Whoever prepared the Journals of Congress’s for publication struck this sentence, which no longer seemed necessary once a copy of the Declaration had been inserted. This seemed innocent enough, but editorial activism did not end there. McKean also discovered two telltale resolutions that had been cleverly omitted from the published journal:

July 19 (the fifth resolution for that date): That the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.[8]

August 2 (the opening resolution for that date): The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed by the members.[9]

These deleted resolutions cast doubt over the wording of the document patched into the entry for July 4, which was titled “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” As of that date, there was no “unanimous Declaration” of “thirteen” states because New York’s delegates were under direct instructions not to vote for independence. Only after New York’s Provincial Congress reversed those instructions on July 9 could its delegates grant their assent. On July 15, the Continental Congress received New York’s formal endorsement of independence,[10] and on July 19 Congress called for an official “engrossed” version of the now-unanimous Declaration, to be “signed by every member”—one of the omitted entries. Further, the redacted August 2 resolution made it clear that the document inserted within the July 4 entry was actually signed later on. In fact, fourteen signers of the Declaration (not only the seven McKean mentioned) had not been present on July 4, and eight of these were not even members Congress on that date.[11]

John Adams, unlike McKean, had no personal reason to question the prevailing belief in a July 4th signing, but if he had consulted his own contemporaneous correspondence, he would not have dismissed McKean’s 1814 letter so readily. On July 5, 1776, Adams penned two letters that might well have mentioned such an event, had it occurred. To Joseph Ward he wrote, “You are Still impatient for a Declaration of Independency. I hope your Appetite will now be Satisfyed. Such a Declaration passed Congress Yesterday, and this Morning will be printed.” And to Mary Palmer: “I will inclose to you a Declaration, in which all America is remarkably united … It compleats a Revolution, which will make as good a Figure in the History of Mankind, as any that has preceeded it.”[12] Several other delegates reported out from Congress without chronicling a signing.[13]

Some of Adams’s correspondence indicates that the official signing was still pending. On July 4, 1776, Samuel Chase, a delegate to Congress, was back home in Maryland drumming up support for independence, and the following day he wrote to Adams: “I hope ere this Time the decisive blow is struck. Opposition, Inhumanity and Perfidy have compelled Us to it. Blessed be Men who effect the Work, I envy You! How shall I transmit to posterity that I gave my assent?” On July 9 Adams assured Chase that he had not missed out: “As soon as an American Seal is prepared, I conjecture the Declaration will be Subscribed by all the Members, which will give you the opportunity you wish for, of transmitting your Name, among the Votaries of Independence.”[14] (Emphasis added.)

On July 21 Elbridge Gerry, who had voted for the Declaration on July 4 but departed Philadelphia on July 16, wrote to John Adams and Samuel Adams, fellow delegates from Massachusetts: “Pray subscribe for me the Declaration of Independence if the same is to be signed as proposed. I think We ought to have the privilege when necessarily absent of voting and signing by proxy.” If he could have signed on July 4, Gerry would certainly have done so, and, having signed, he would not have worried that his support would go unrecorded.[15]

One contemporaneous letter reveals that delegates had good reason not to sign the Declaration on the spot, but to wait for a more opportune moment. On July 5 Elbridge Gerry wrote to James Warren:

I have the pleasure to inform you that a determined resolution of the delegates from some of the colonies to push the question of independency has had a most happy effect, and after a day’s debate all the colonies excepting New-York, whose delegates are not empowered to give either an affirmative or negative voice, united in a declaration long sought for, solicited and necessary, the declaration of independency. New-York will most probably on Monday next, when its convention meets for forming a constitution, join in the measure, and then it will be entitled the unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America.[16] [Emphasis added.]

By delaying the public pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” delegates could convey unanimity, settle the debate over independence once and for all, and move on to managing the war. With the passage of time, John Adams had forgotten the purposive postponement and embraced the nation’s contrived “memory” of an immediate Fourth of July signing.


How can firsthand witnesses to history—even such notables as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—misremember such a memorable moment?

To answer that question, we need to look at recent developments in cognitive science.  “Memories” used to be viewed as direct replicas of the past that could be accessed at will, as if looking at a photograph or reading a transcript. A memory might fade or diminish with time, but although details are lost, the core holds true. The past lives on, unimpeded by more recent events.

Cognitive scientists now see it differently. The process of recall, they tell us, requires filing the initial event within some “schema,” an interpretive structure that the mind will be able to recognize in the future. (They also call such files “memory organization packages” or “thematic organization points.”) Schemas can be categories, such as “my high school friends” or “things I did last week,” but the most powerful schemas are narratives, which combine coherent sequencing with meaning or purpose. The initial narrative, however, is not cast in stone. Once a storyline has formed, we add details that appear to suit that tale. In this manner we rewrite and embellish our so-called recollections as time goes by.

“Memory,” in this light, is more a verb than a noun. Memory is remembering, an active process. When a recollection is called forth, what emerges is a soupy mix of original information and added fragments received from family stories, photographs, media accounts, and so on. Remembering is fluid and malleable. Further, after a memory is altered, subsequent remembrances will incorporate those previous acts of remembering, reinforcing any additions, subtractions, or distortions.

We can view such processes at work with Adams and Jefferson, although we lack sufficient data for Franklin.

In 1787 Jefferson read an article in a Parisian newspaper that credited John Dickinson with declaring American independence. Far from it, Jefferson recalled. He wrote to that paper: “The several paragraphs of [the Declaration] were debated for three days, viz. the 2d, 3d, & 4th of July. In the evening of the 4th they were finally closed, and the instrument approved by an unanimous vote and signed by every member, except Mr. Dickinson. Look into the Journal of Congress of that day, Sir, and you will see the instrument, and the names of the signers, and that Mr. Dickinson’s name is not among them.”[17] (Emphasis added.) It appears that Jefferson had consulted Congress’s published journal and trusted it implicitly, not realizing it had been doctored.

Jefferson relied on another written account as well, a brief chronicle that he himself had penned not long after Congress declared independence: “The debates having taken up the greater parts of the 2d, 3d, & 4th days of July were, in the evening of the last closed. the declaration was reported by the commee, agreed to by the house, and signed by every member, except Mr. Dickinson.” His response to the Parisian paper was taken almost verbatim from this passage, which, late in life, he claimed was based on notes he jotted down “in my place while these things were going on,” and then, “at their close,” written out “in form and with correctness.”[18]

But were Jefferson’s notes truly contemporaneous? Historians have long debated just what “at their close” signified. It must have been sometime after August 1, 1776, the final entry in his narrative, but before June 1, 1783, when Jefferson sent a copy of the corrected version to James Madison.[19] In any case, Jefferson’s own notes led him astray. Whether he turned his original notes into a coherent narrative months or years after the event, they contain a significant error. According to the running journal kept by Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, the Declaration of Independence was approved early in the day, not “in the evening,” as Jefferson reported. It was the second item of business, and after that matter was settled, Congress resumed the multifarious tasks of conducting a war: reading a letter from General Washington, employing “such a number of persons, as they shall find necessary, to manufacture flint,” appointing two additional commissioners for Indian affairs, and so on. Thirteen distinct transactions followed approval of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, and the third one, by contemporaneous evidence, occurred “in the morning.”[20] Since Jefferson focused on the critical issue of independence, however, he likely did not record the later business, and when he prepared his notes “in form and with correctness,” he did not mention such matters. In his mind, once independence had been finalized, the day was done—so it must have been “in the evening.” This seemed a reasonable calculation, and it made a fitting conclusion to his narrative of independence. The Fourth of July, in hindsight, was all about independence, so his compelling narrative effectively masked all other business enacted on that day.

Because Jefferson could reinforce his memory by consulting two unwavering and seemingly trustworthy sources, and because these formed a coherent and cohesive narrative, his memory remained stable for over four decades—but then, late in life, his entrenched narrative was twice contested.

The first challenge came from Thomas McKean. On June 16, 1817, literally from his deathbed, McKean dictated a letter to the publishers of the Freeman’s Journal and Columbian Chronicle, a Philadelphia newspaper, and four days later his case finally received a public airing in the press. “Modesty should not rob any man of his just honour,” he proclaimed. “I was then a member of Congress for the state of Delaware, was personally present in Congress, and voted in favour of Independence on the 4th day of July, 1776, and signed the Declaration, after it had been engrossed on parchment, where my name, in my own hand writing, still appears.” He did not sign the document on July 4 because nobody but the president and secretary of Congress did. Anyone who doubted this, McKean said, need only consult the July 19 entry of the manuscript version of Congress’s journal, which “directed that it [the Declaration of Independence] should be engrossed on parchment, and signed by every member,” and the entry for August 2, which reported that the engrossed document was indeed “produced” and “signed” on that day. The manuscript journal, he reported, “has no names annexed to the Declaration of Independence,” whereas the printed journal listed fifty-five signers, but not McKean. Once again, he listed several signers who were demonstrably not present on July 4.[21]

Thomas McKean died four days after the Freeman’s Journal published his letter. In part because of his death, which was a newsworthy event in itself, his critique of the alleged July 4 signing attracted people’s notice. Patriotic Americans who had always coupled the signing of the Declaration with the Fourth of July had some explaining to do.

In the spring of 1819, in preparation for a Fourth of July oration in Boston, Samuel Adams Wells asked Jefferson to recall the day Congress approved the Declaration. Jefferson used the occasion to rebut McKean, who had been “trusting to his memory chiefly at an age when our memories are not to be trusted.” Jefferson, by contrast, could consult his written notes, which stated that the Declaration was signed on July 4 “by every member, except Mr. Dickinson.” But how could Jefferson address McKean’s revelation that the signers and members of Congress were not the same group? In a copy of his notes he sent to Wells, he interlined the word “present” after “member” and then explained why each of the signers McKean had listed was not present that day. “These were the only post-signers,” he concluded, thinking that settled the matter.[22]

It did not. Several signers not listed by either McKean or Jefferson were absent on July 4: Connecticut’s William Williams and George Wolcott, Maryland’s Charles Carroll and Samuel Chase, North Carolina’s William Hooper, and Virginia’s George Wythe, who was Jefferson’s legal mentor. Even more to the point, neither McKean nor Maryland’s John Rogers, strong advocates of independence who were present on July 4, were signers—until McKean added his name later, that is. Rogers never did sign. Surely, these two patriots would have signed on July 4 if given the chance to do so.

The second challenge came in 1821, when Congress finally released the manuscript version of its “secret” journal. After reading the omitted entries for July 19 and August 2, Jefferson revised his chronicle once again, this time by inserting in his notes a new slip of paper: “The Declaration thus signed on the 4th on paper was engrossed on parchment, & signed again on the 2nd of August.” Further, on his personal copy of the letter he had written to Wells three years earlier, he added this postscript: “The copy engrossed on parchment (for durability) was signed by members after being compared at the table with the original one, signed on paper as before stated.”[23] These were not public pronouncements. Jefferson valued reason above all else, so for his own benefit he tried to reconcile the newly revealed information with his previous narrative. With two signings, the first on paper and the second on parchment, he did not have to abandon his earlier commitment to July 4.

But this new reckoning just muddied the waters. Delegates present on July 4 certainly pledged their support and might even have signed a paper document, but if they did, that paper was not released to the world. Nobody at the time reported seeing the document, and no delegate deemed this signing important enough to comment on it. Meanwhile, the July 4 Declaration that people did see, printed by John Dunlap, bore only two signatures, President John Hancock’s and Secretary Charles Thomson’s. Even if a paper signed on July 4 did exist for a time, it has not been recovered, and it was not “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,” the nation’s celebrated birth certificate. As contemporaneous evidence shows, the public pronouncement, marked by signatures of delegates from all thirteen states, was purposely delayed until New York granted its approval. The signing, the one that counted, had to wait.

In 1823 John Adams, like Jefferson, amended his simple narrative of a July 4 signing to incorporate both McKean’s objections and the revelation of an August 2 signing:

Accordingly on the 3d July … the immortal resolution was passed and the Declaration of Independence ought then to have been signed, but Congress choose to Sleep another night, and ordered the signature for the next day. Accordingly on the next day the 4th July 1776 the declaration of Independence was then signed by all the members then present. Mr. McKean was not then present for he had so many avocations in Delaware, and as Attorney General in Pennsylvania, that he could not constantly attend in Congress. I have no doubt that he voted for independence in the Committee of the whole, on the 2d, and for the resolutions in Congress on the 3d but he was not present and did not sign on the 4th. All the confusion has arisen from a resolution which I hope I shall be pardoned for my irreverence, if I say it was absurd, for I thought it so then, And think so still, that all future members should sign the original parchment, but such a resolution passed and was obeyed, in consequence of which a number of names appear on the declaration of Independence of the 4th who were certainly not there and did not sign, among whom Mr. McKean was one.[24]

Adams did preface his response with a disclaimer: “I am incapable of Searching for Books or dates, and my memory may not be depended upon, but according to my recollection …” His “recollection,” however, was a new and manufactured narrative. McKean could not have been present, Adams reasoned, or he would have signed on July 4. To make this reasoning work, he imagined why McKean might have been absent (he was frequently occupied elsewhere) and then convinced himself this must have been the case. This conjecture, in his mind, became fact, a lynchpin to his revised memory. Forty-seven years later, John Adams boldly stated that one particular colleague, out of several dozen, was not present on a certain day. Such recall, if correct, would be truly remarkable.

Although Adams’s newly constructed narrative was plausible, contemporaneous evidence suggests that Thomas McKean was indeed present when the Declaration was approved. According to Secretary Thomson’s journal for July 4, shortly after Congress finalized the Declaration it appointed a committee to confer with the local committees of safety and inspection “on the best means of defending the colonies of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” (British forces were expected to attack New York City shortly and from there move southward.) The chairman of that committee, appropriately, was Thomas McKean, who was simultaneously a delegate to Congress, chairman of Philadelphia’s Committee of Inspection, and colonel for the city’s Fourth Battalion of Associators. (Although still representing Delaware, McKean had recently moved to Philadelphia.)[25] True, as Adams’s revised narrative stated, McKean had much to do outside of Congress those days, but at that particular moment, when dispatched on this mission, he was likely, although not certainly, in attendance. In any case, McKean’s business with Congress on July 4, when the committee was appointed, and July 5, when his committee reported back, invalidates Adams’s conjecture that McKean’s “many avocations in Delaware, and as Attorney General in Pennsylvania” kept him away just then. He was certainly in town and tending to congressional affairs. Had there been a signing, McKean doubtless would have joined in.

Thomas McKean aside, Adams’s revision did not resolve “all the confusion.” His claim that Congress required “all future members” to “sign the original parchment” is a somewhat muddled version of the resolution that was passed on July 19, not July 4; decades later, events two weeks apart could easily be conflated. And what did Adams mean by “original parchment”? The “parchment” that Congress ordered on July 19 and members signed on August 2 was a latecomer, so Adams must have intended “original parchment” to signify a document that was first signed on July 4. But if members had already signed an “original parchment” on July 4, why would Congress, on July 19, have ordered the production of an additional parchment? Why couldn’t future members just sign the “original” one, as Adams said they did?

Here is the upshot: Whoever served on the committee that edited Congress’s journal literally rewrote history, shaping the collective memory of the nation. Even the personal memories of Adams and Jefferson fell into line.

This was not a unique occurrence. John Adams, in particular, devoted a quarter-century to retelling the Revolution, and much of what we know, or think we know, stems from his filtered reminiscences. Of course his stories have value, but memories, even of direct participants, are shaped by the very narratives they anchor and do not have the force of contemporaneous evidence.[26]


[1] McKean to Adams, January 1814, National Archives, Adams Papers, Founders Online: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6245. Shortly after McKean’s death, Adams arranged for McKean’s letter to be published in Niles Weekly Register, July 12, 1817: https://books.google.com/books?id=30tHAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&dq=%22whereas+no+person+signed+it+on+that+day%22&source=bl&ots=vejznExNoY&sig=sBqMv2hfHHNSeGbIlaiTFV-R6yE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwitgMPGkZ3UAhUisVQKHZOgA9wQ6AEIGDAC#v=onepage&q=%22whereas%20no%20person%20signed%20it%20on%20that%20day%22&f=false

[2] Adams to Warren, February 2, 1814, Adams Papers, Founders Online: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Adams%20Papers%22%20Recipient%3A%22Warren%2C%20Mercy%20Otis%22%20Author%3A%22Adams%2C%20John%22%20Period%3A%22Madison%20Presidency%22&s=1511311111&r=3&sr=warr

[3] Jefferson to M. Soules, September 13, 1786, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-1899), 4:304, or Jefferson Papers, Founders Online, “Answers to Soules’ Queries,” September 13, 1786: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Jefferson%20Papers%22%20Author%3A%22Jefferson%2C%20Thomas%22&s=1511311111&r=3&sr=soules

[4] Franklin to Mrs. James McConn, July 4, 1786, Franklin Papers, Yale University: http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=44&page=202

Quoted in Charles Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 2 (1945): 242-3.

[5] The order of Congress is printed at the bottom of the Goddard Broadside. A recent recreation is here.

[6] McKean to Alexander Dallas, August 4-September 26, 1796, in John H. Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence: Its History (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1906), 299-301, and Edmund C. Burnett, Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1921), 1:533-4: https://archive.org/stream/lettersofmembers01burnuoft#page/n6/mode/1up

(Burnett, on pages 528-538, presents several of the other journal entries and letters of delegates pertaining to the signing.) Dallas asked Secretary of State Thomas Pickering to examine the official engrossed document, and Pickering confirmed “that the name Thomas McKean, the Chief-Justice of Pennsylvania, was affixed in his own hand-writing to the original Declaration of Independence, though it is omitted in the Journals of Congress.” (Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence, 595.) In fact, the entry for July 4 was not literally “stitched in,” although it clearly had been added at a later date.

[7] Library of Congress, American Memory, Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, Journals of the Continental Congress (JCC), 5:516: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00525))

[8] JCC 5:590-1: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00538))

[9] JCC 5:626: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00549))

[10] JCC 5:560: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00534))

[11] Signers not present on July 4 included Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire, William Williams of Connecticut, Charles Carroll of Maryland, and Benjamin Rush, George Ross, James Smith, George Clymer, and George Taylor of Pennsylvania, all of whom had not yet become delegates. Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut had taken leave of Congress to assume command of his state’s militia, while Lewis Morris and Philip Livingston went home when the British threatened to invade New York. William Hooper of North Carolina, Samuel Chase of Maryland, and George Wythe of Virginia were helping their states constitute new governments. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4: 468; 11: 146; 13: 772; 15: 903–904; 18: 911–912; 19: 73; 21: 609; 23: 514, 721; 24: 93; Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Scribner’s, 1943), 4: 235; 17: 284; 18: 325. In the case of Samuel Chase of Maryland, the notion that these men signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776, created an interesting folktale. A few days earlier, Chase had been in Maryland, attending the state convention. Because he supposedly signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, people thought he must have engaged in a heroic ride that has long been immortalized. In fact, Chase had fallen ill and didn’t arrive back in Philadelphia until July 17, in plenty of time to sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2. James Haw, Francis F. Beirne, Rosamond R. Beirne, R. Samuel Jett, Stormy Patriot: The Life of Samuel Chase (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1980), 68.

[12] Adams to Ward, July 5, 1776, and Adams to Mary Palmer, July 5, 1776, Library of Congress, American Memory, Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, Letters of Delegates to Congress (LDC), 4:390, 389.

[13] Abraham Clark to Elias Dayton, July 4: “Our Congress Resolved to Declare the United Colonies Free and independent States. A Declaration for this Purpose, I expect, will this day pass Congress, it is nearly gone through, after which it will be Proclaimed with all the State & Solemnity Circumstances will admit.” (LDC 4:378.)

Robert Treat Paine’s diary, July 4: “The Independance of the States Voted & declared.” (LDC 4:386.)

Caesar Rodney to Thomas Rodney, July 4: “I arrived in Congress (tho detained by thunder and Rain) time Enough to give my Voice in the matter of Independence. It is determined by the Thirteen United Colonies with out even one disenting Colony. We have now Got through with the Whole of the declaration and Ordered it to be printed, so that You will soon have the pleasure of seeing it. Hand bills of it will be printed and Sent to the Armies, Cities, Countys, Towns &c-to be published or rather proclaimed in form.” (LDC 4:388.) Notified by Thomas McKean that Delaware’s delegation was deadlocked, Rodney rushed to Philadelphia, in his words, “to give my Voice” and break the tie within the delegation. Although Rodney spoke of the Declaration being printed, he said nothing about its being signed. Rodney was simply wrong that all thirteen colonies were onboard at that date; numerous contemporaneous documents state that New York had not yet granted its assent.)

Abraham Clark to William Livingston, July 5: “I enclose a Declaration of Congress, which is directed to be Published in all the Colonies, And Armies, and which I make no doubt you will Publish in your Brigade.” (LDC 4:391.)

[14] Chase to Adams, July 5, 1776, and Adams to Chase, July 9, 1776, LDC 4:414-5.

[15] Gerry to Samuel Adams and John Adams, July 21, 1776, Burnett, Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, 1:530: https://archive.org/stream/lettersofmembers01burnuoft#page/n6/mode/1up

[16] LDC 4:391-2.

[17] Jefferson to the Editor of the Journal de Paris, August 29, 1787, Jefferson Papers, Founders Online: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0073 (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, v. 12, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 61–65.)

[18] The passage from Jefferson’s corrected notes appears in Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1:315.

[19] For dating Jefferson’s notes, see ibid. 299-308, 327-8. The passage about placing his notes “in form and with correctness” is on a piece of paper he inserted, at an unknown time, with the notes, which he placed in his 1821 autobiography. Ibid., 301-2.

[20] JCC 5:516-8; Congress to Lancaster Associators, July 4, 1776, LDC 4:381-2.

[21] McKean to William McCorkle & Son, June 16, 1817, Hazelton, Declaration of Independence, 303-5; Burnett, Letters of Members of Congress, 1:532.

[22] Jefferson to Wells, May 12, 1819, Ford, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10:130-1, or Jefferson Papers, Founders Online: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Project%3A%22Jefferson%20Papers%22%20Author%3A%22Jefferson%2C%20Thomas%22%20Recipient%3A%22Wells%2C%20Samuel%20Adams%22&s=1511311111&r=1&sr=well. Well’s oration was actually delivered on July 5, the 4th being a Sunday. An Oration, Pronounced on July 5, 1819, at the Request of the Republicans of the Town of Boston, in Commemoration of the Anniversary of American Independence (Boston: T. Badger, Jr., 1819).

[23] Hazelton, Declaration of Independence, 297, 594 n32.

[24] Adams to Caesar A. Rodney, April 30, 1823, Adams Papers, Founders Online: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Adams%2C%20John%22%20Recipient%3A%22Rodney%2C%20Caesar%20Augustus%22&s=1511311111&sa=&r=4&sr=rodney. This Caesar A. Rodney was a nephew of the deceased Caesar Rodney, who, with Thomas McKean, was a delegate from Delaware to the Continental Congress. Rodney enclosed a letter McKean had sent to him in 1813, which contained the same narrative McKean shared with Adams that year.

[25] JCC July 4, 1776, 4:509-20; Pennsylvania Gazette, July 10, 1776; G. S. Rowe, Thomas McKean: The Shaping of an American Republicanism (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1978), 74, 76. On July 5, having met with the appropriate local groups, McKean issued the committee’s report, which Secretary Thomson entered in the official journal.

[26] Here is another example of how an organizing schema can reshape the telling of history. Early in 1809, John Adams and Benjamin Rush conversed, through letters, about the folly of legislative overreach. At issue were the Jefferson-inspired embargo laws, which brought to mind historical examples of runaway lawmaking. From Adams: “I remember our Massachusetts legislature once made a law for the extirpation of barberry bushes, upon severe penalties. Not a single bush was ever injured in obedience to it, and at the next election seven eighths of the members were turned out and friends of barberries elected, who instantly repealed the law … Legislators! Beware how you make laws to shock the prejudices or break the habits of the people.” Adams to Rush, March 14, 1809, in John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds., The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805-1813 (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1966), 134, or Adams Papers, Founders Online: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Adams%2C%20John%22%20Recipient%3A%22Rush%2C%20Benjamin%22%20Dates-From%3A1809-03-01&s=1511311111&sa=&r=2&sr=. Adams’s remembrance was partially correct, but not entirely so. On December 26, 1754, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act requiring the eradication of barberry bushes, believed to be destructive to the growing of wheat. According to this law, the offensive weed had to be “eradicated or destroyed” by the owners or occupants of land where it grew. If, by June 10, 1760, the weeds persisted, “any person whatsoever” could enter the land “to cut them down, or pull them up by the roots” and charge the owner or occupant for services rendered. Further, an owner or occupant who refused to pay could be hauled to court and forced to shell out twice the original amount. Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay (Boston: Albert J. Wright, 1878), III: 797-798. The law was chapter 20, second session, of the 1754-1755 term.)

Farmers understandably resented this heavy-handed law, and sure enough, there was a significant turnover in the legislature at the next election—about half the representatives were not returned, somewhat higher than the average rate but scarcely “seven-eighths.” Such hyperbole for the sake of the story is understandable, but Adams erred on a more substantive point: despite his claim, the law was never repealed. Like many acts at the time, it had a sunset provision, and on June 10, 1764, it was merely allowed to expire. Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1908), v. XV. Martha Clark, curator of the Massachusetts Archives, reports: “I looked at the Journals from 1754 through 1763. Following the initial passage of the act relating to barberry bushes in 1754, there is no further reference to barberry bushes.” Personal email, October 2, 2015. For the turnover between 1754-1755 and 1755-1756, see ibid., 166-167 and 324-325. See also Andrew McFarland Davis, “Barberry Bushes and Wheat,” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, XI, Transactions 1906-1907 (Boston: Colonial Society, 1910), 81-85.

The error here sheds light on how we remember. Adams’s schema, his organizing principle, was the structure of representative government: legislators who flout popular opinion will be turned out of office so the new batch can reverse their deeds. That was the way representation was supposed to work, and he assumed it had done so. Repealing the barberry law was the natural conclusion to his tale; otherwise, why bother to throw out the old crew? The moral of the story Adams wished to tell required his memory to fall into line.

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  • Great article and an indication of how you need to question everything when looking at history, even something as embedded in our thinking as July 4 being Independence Day. Didn’t Adams state in a letter to Abigail (written on July 3!) that July 2 would hereafter “…be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival”? So he thought it was July 2: This muddies the waters even further.

    It’s amazing how historical memory can be unreliable, even to those the closest to the events. The mind plays tricks. Throw in a little manipulation of the documentary evidence to frame history a certain desired way, and that makes the problem even worse. Police often will disregard the testimony of eyewitnesses, which has proven by studies to be notoriously unreliable – and that’s related to events that just recently happened! I guess it’s no wonder that, even related to events as monumental as this, memories can differ.

  • Like Richard, I too find Adams’s comments about July 3 odd. He speaks of confusion in the quoted paragraph, but only seems to add to it by what he “remembers.” I do recall that in their later years, Jefferson and Adams had differing accounts too of how Jefferson came to chair the “committee of five” which would compose the Declaration. Adams recorded that he had been chosen vice chair of the committee, but Jefferson recalled no such thing. No wonder revisionists abound in history…some of our founders were engaging in that activity early on as well!

  • Jett and Richard — The reference to July 2 in JA’s July 3 letter refers to the actual VOTE on independence. Adams assumed that was the pivotal moment, and in fact it was — the Declaration, approved on July 4, was in effect the press release. The birth of our nation was July 2, 1776, a rather basic fact that all the hoopla over July 4 has obscured.

  • Ray –

    Thanks for the clarification on vote vs. signing. So we all ought to really be celebrating July 2.

    As far as Jett’s point about differing recollections on Jefferson’s appointment to the committee and subsequent authorship of the Declaration, he may have run across the same article I did, the access information for which I’ve pasted in below. This one is another interesting study of the role of memory in creating the historical narrative and worth a read if you haven’t already seen it:

    Deciphering Memory: John Adams and the Authorship of the Declaration of Independence
    Author(s): Robert E. McGlone
    Source: The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Sep., 1998), pp. 411-438
    Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American Historians
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2567746

  • Thanks Ray for your response. I’m still a bit confused by Adams’s April 30 letter to Rodney. It seems to introduce a new voting sequence to the one I’ve always understood (i.e., Congress voted for independence on July 2…by voting to accept Richard Henry Lee’s resolution, and then on July 4 voted to accept the revised Declaration of Independence). Adams’s letter seems to say that the “immortal resolution” was voted on July 3, but held over until the next day only for the signing. Furthermore he doesn’t seem to distinguish between the two resolutions (Lee’s and the other he seems to refer to as the immortal resolution). Hence, my comment about Adams’s seeming confusion and recollection.

    Your article on the signing aspects of the Declaration, based on the (likely faulty) memory of several key participants, is most interesting. But it also seems to suggest a new date for the actual vote for the Declaration, July 3, at least based on Adams’s recollection.

  • Further review of the records of proceedings for the Continental Congress on July 3, 1776 do not support Adams’s recollection years later that a vote on the Declaration of Independence was taken on that day. The vote for independence (Lee resolution) was taken and recorded on the 2nd, as has been long known (12 yeas, NY abstaining). Consideration of the Declaration was held over to the 3rd, and again to the 4th of July, when it was finally agreed to. The only question then is that of Ray’s as posed in his article: who signed it on that day? A question that Ray’s research appears to answer, contrary of the memories of some of those who said they signed it on that day.

  • Clarification: John wrote to Abigail on July 3, referencing the vote on July 2: “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. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illumination, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.” Of related interest, perhaps, is a piece I wrote years ago for JAR: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/07/10-myths-for-the-fourth-of-july/

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