Why Did the Signers of the Declaration Engage in this Treasonous Act?

The Committee of Five presenting their work to the Congress on June 28, 1776. Painting by John Trumbull. (U.S. Capitol)

Speaking on Independence Day, 1821, John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the Unites States and the son of John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, stated that the Declaration

was merely an occasional state-paper. It was a solemn exposition to the world, of the causes which have compelled the people of a small portion of the British empire, to cast off their allegiance and renounce the protection of the British king: and to dissolve their social connection with the British people.[1]

Although at the time it may have been “merely an occasional state-paper,” in recent years the Declaration has been referred to as a “war document”;[2] and because of its message, historian Pauline Maier summarized its impact in the following words: “From the viewpoint of those who opposed its message, the Declaration was nothing less than a public confession of treason.”[3] In view of the seriousness of this public confession historian Fawn Brodie even provided her readers with the following detailed description of the horrendous penalty for treason which did not change until March 17, 1813, when Parliament approved a bill to include only hanging or beheading as a more humane form of punishment.

You are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for, while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the King’s disposal; and may the Almighty God have mercy on your souls.[4]

Given the brutal nature of this early punishment, coupled with their “pledge to each other (of) our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” as stated in the Declaration itself, it is certainly not surprising that the fifty-six delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia who signed the Declaration have long been considered among the most heroic figures in American history. The author of an 1857 publication titled “American’s Own Book” characterized their lives and the personal consequences of performing this deed in the following manner.

The memories of few men will perhaps be cherished, by their posterity, with more jealous and grateful admiration than those of the patriotic individuals, who first signed the political independence of our country. They hazarded by the deed not only their lands and possessions but their personal freedom and their lives, and when it is considered that most of them were in the vigor of existence, gifted with considerable fortune, and with all the offices and emoluments at the disposal of royalty within their reach, the sacrifice which they risked appears magnified, and their disinterested patriotism more worthy of remembrance.[5]

Was the act of signing the Declaration truly fraught with as much danger as has so often been suggested? To answer this question the following material provides the timeframe and events associated with the drafting and dissemination of each of the primary versions of the Declaration.

The Emergence of the Declaration of Independence

The first phase in the development of the Declaration occurred on June 7, 1776, during a meeting of the Second Continental Congress when Richard Henry Lee from Virginia presented the following motion on behalf of Virginia to the congressional delegates in Philadelphia.

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.[6]

Owing to the contentious nature of Lee’s motion it was decided that a vote needed to be delayed until July 1 so that the delegates would have sufficient time to meet with the colonies they represented to determine how best to deal with this matter. Because of comments that had occurred during the course of the initial debate it was also decided that a committee needed to be formed to draft a document that reflected the justification as well as the significance of the motion.

On June 10 the Continental Congress appointed the following five delegates to form the committee: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. As the result of his role in preparing the Virginia motion Lee was also asked to draft the follow-up document requested by Congress. On June 11 Lee received word that his wife was ill and that he needed to return to Virginia immediately. It was due to his abrupt departure that Thomas Jefferson, a fellow delegate from Virginia, was asked to take his place and to prepare the required draft.[7]

The second phase took place on June 28, 1776, when Congress met as a whole to read Jefferson’s draft, which had been modified to some extent by several committee members. Because the submitted draft required still further modifications, it was decided to postpone ratification for several days. The third phase occurred on July 2 when the final revised draft was read and approved, but not signed. Next, Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress,

Ordered that the Declaration be authenticated & printed. That the committee appointed to prepare the Declaration superintend & correct the press. That copies of the Declaration be sent to the several assemblies, conventions & committees or councils of safety and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops and that it be proclaimed in each of the united states & at the head of the army.

The First Version of the Declaration of Independence

The unsigned body of the Declaration was delivered to Thomas Dunlap, a local printer in preparation for printing. It has been estimated that around two hundred paper copies of this initial version of the Declaration were printed and circulated as required by Congress. Of this number, twenty-one are known to exist and seventeen were examined in the 1970s by Fredrick Goff.[8] Although it has been claimed by Wilfred Ritz that thirty-four of the delegates who were present on July 2 signed the document,[9] the only names Goff identified were those of the Congressional Secretary, Charles Thomson, and the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock. Thus, if the claim by Ritz has any merit, what might have been signed was the printer’s proof which has never been found and may have been destroyed.[10] While it is unknown if these thirty-four delegates purposely avoided signing the circulated document to prevent being charged with treason, because of the absence of their names it is extremely unlikely that any would have been charged.

On July 9 George Washington received his copy and, in compliance with the order from Congress, had it read to his troops. According to Maier, Washington and Congress hoped that the material contained in the body of the Declaration would inspire the soldiers, and “might also encourage men to join the army and help American affairs take a more favorable turn.”[11]

In line with this last point, most grievances in the Declaration that were levied against the British began with the words “He has refused” or “He has forbidden.” By personalizing the enemy in this fashion the colonists’ anger was clearly directed solely at the King which would have made military recruitment far easier than if blame for the grievances had been placed on the largely amorphous body of the British Parliament. In the words of Black, this terminology was an intentional “indictment of a conspirator, who had misused his executive power . . . making George akin to an Old Testament plague.”[12] Indeed, it was the case that after hearing the Declaration, hatred of the king had become so pronounced that crowds in many cities tore down and destroyed signs or statues representing authority. For example, in New York City an equestrian statue of King George was pulled down and the lead used to make musket balls.[13] A number of the grievances that had already been resolved or were never enforced[14] may have been included in the Declaration, at least in part, to refresh colonists’ memories of their previous resentments against the crown in order to further encourage enlistments.

When understood in this way, the initial printing of the Declaration, which was circulated but unsigned, might not have been intended as a war document in the literal sense of a declaration of war, but instead to serve as a military recruitment tool or call to arms. Given this possibility it is not surprising that Maier was further led to conclude that the Dunlap Broadside “was designed first and foremost for domestic consumption.”[15]

The Second Version of the Declaration of Independence

The second version of the Declaration, which was finished on August 2, 1776, had a very different purpose. Known as the Matlack copy, this time the Declaration was printed on parchment and it was hoped that everyone would sign by August 2.[16] All except five who signed sometime later did so by this date. Because only one copy was produced, this parchment version was not destined for widespread distribution but, instead, was intended for preservation in a permanent location once the war was over. Hence, very few people outside of the members of the Continental Congress would have been aware of this signed copy since it “traveled with the Continental Congress as it moved by land and by water during the Revolutionary War . . . (possibly) rolled for transport or, just as likely, folded to fit into a saddle bag or wooden chest.”[17]

The Third Version of the Declaration of Independence

The level of secrecy associated with the Matlack copy as well as the degree of anonymity that had accompanied the Dunlap Broadside changed with the printing of the third and final version of the Declaration. Known as the Goddard Broadside, this version was authorized by Congress on January 18, 1777. It was printed on paper with the names of all but one of the fifty-six signers (Thomas McKean), and was intended for public distribution to a much wider audience than the Dunlap Broadside. With the release of this third version, the public for the first time became aware of those who had endorsed the message contained in the document. Until then, outside of the delegates themselves, no one knew who had actually been responsible for the message. In fact, it wasn’t until 1784 that Thomas Jefferson was even identified as its author!

What is most important here in relation to the issue at hand is the date when this third version was released to the public. By late December 1776 and early January 1777, the Continental Army under George Washington’s command had gained what were extremely important military victories in New Jersey—the battle of Trenton won on December 26, 1776 and the victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777. In commenting on the timing of this release Maier made the following observation.

They [the signers] were not, however, given to throwing their fate into God’s hands needlessly. Only on January 18, 1777, after the long, disastrous military campaign of 1776 was over and the Americans had won victories at Trenton and Princeton, did Congress send the states authentic copies of the Declaration of Independence with the names of the members . . . subscribing the same.[18]

Although it is unclear what Maier might have meant by the statement “throwing their fate into God’s hand’s needlessly,” it is possible that the delegates could have considered this an opportune moment for reaching a negotiated settlement for ending the war with Great Britain. Given the losses the British had already suffered at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Boston and now at Trenton and Princeton, this third version with all of the names attached was released at a time when the members of the Continental Congress might have been reasonably confident that more British losses were to be expected in the future. The Declaration with its list of grievances could have been used as the starting point for peace negotiations. As one of the conditions for achieving a peaceful settlement, Congress, no doubt, would have requested the dismissal of any charges of treason that otherwise could have been levied against the signers of this document.

There are several reasons for suggesting that this might have been the case. First, because of the successes already realized in resolving a number of the grievances it was reasonable to think that similar progress could be achieved in resolving the remaining grievances through an early set of talks. Second, as recently as July 8, 1775, the Continental Congress had attempted to broker an end to the impending war when it sent to the King an appeal for reconciliation known as the Olive Branch Petition. Although this petition was initially rejected, Lord Dartmouth, British secretary of state to the colonies, received the King’s approval in February 1776 to send a commission to the colonies to negotiate reconciliation on the basis of the Olive Branch Petition;[19] word of this commission had reached the members of Congress as early as May 1776.[20] Third, Benjamin Franklin had been in discussion with two of the highest ranking British commanders in North America, General William Howe and his brother Richard, a Vice-Admiral in the British navy, both of whom were strongly in favor of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. In the spring of 1776 General Howe sent a letter to London that expressed his reservations about a British victory owing to the strength of the colonial military and had even previously proposed several means for achieving a negotiated settlement.[21] Finally, the delegates were also aware of Franklin’s conversations with Lord Chatham, an important member in the House of Lords who had supported a peaceful settlement with the colonists. On February 1, 1775, Lord Chatham introduced “A provisional Act for Settling the Troubles in America,” that was designed to “pacify America” by granting the Continental Congress “a role in devising a new constitutional and financial settlement.”[22]

In addition to this parliamentary and military support of a peaceful solution, it was also known that a similar level of support existed among the citizens of Great Britain who were kept fully informed throughout this period of events taking place in the colonies.

It is a fact of some importance that English newspapers made the colonial interpretation of events in America accessible to the English public in precisely those terms that Congress thought most convincing. In its first petition to the Crown, Congress explicitly planned a public relations campaign in England in the hope of eliciting public support for its actions . . . The English press cooperated in this effort with surprising unanimity; even those editors who were hostile to the colonies consistently printed the most important papers . . . During the Stamp Act crisis all the key trading and industrial areas of England petitioned for repeal; a decade later, sixteen of these twenty-five places appealed once again for conciliation . . . In 1775 the people of England advised the king of England: If this plan should continue to be enforced, it must be attended with a great waste of blood and treasure to this country, without any well-grounded prospect of success, and may finally deprive these kingdoms of the valuable trade of America, and force the inhabitants of that country, against their inclination and interest, to set up an independent state.[23]

Unfortunately for the Congressional delegates, however, shortly after the release of the third version of the Declaration the tide of war had changed for the worse which meant that the possibility of now reaching a negotiated settlement as the result of the Continental Army’s early position of strength, had quickly become remote. Beginning with the Battle of Bound Brook on April 13, 1777, of thirty-nine engagements fought between the colonial victories at Trenton and Princeton and when the French military first entered the war (August 1778), only ten battles were won by the Americans which meant that the British were no longer militarily in a position of weakness.

It goes without saying that if the end of the war had favored the British, the signers of the Goddard version of the Declaration, whose names were now well known, could very well have been charged with treason. Despite this possibility though, punishment for treason may not have been on the minds of the delegates who agreed on January 18, 1777, to sign this version of the Declaration. On June 20, 1776, well before the release of the third version, British Vice-Admiral Richard Howe issued a statement that offered amnesty to any American who agreed that he would not participate in any further rebellious activities against the Crown. His brother, General Howe, on November 30, 1776, extended the same offer to those who would agree to “remain in peaceful obedience to his Majesty. . . In the fall of 1776, many people of New Jersey accepted the terms that the Howe brothers offered them.” Within a few weeks, British authorities reported that more than three thousand people had come forward to make an oath of allegiance to George III and take their “protection papers.”[24]

Of central importance to the current report, Richard Stockton, one of the Declaration’s early signers and “high on the list of the Americans the British sought to capture,” was arrested and imprisoned on November 3, 1776. On December 29 Stockton took advantage of Howe’s offer, initialed the required statement, and was set free. “Had he not signed the Amnesty statement he would have remained in prison with the liability of being ‘hanged , drawn and quartered,’ as well as losing all of his property, thus impoverishing his family.”[25] Those whose printed names appeared on the widely circulated third version of the Declaration would have known about the Howe brothers’ offer and could have allowed their names to be released in January 1777 with full knowledge that if worse came to worse they too would have been able to avoid a charge of treason by taking the same oath that Stockton did before the war ended.

The Three Versions Compared

The first version of the Declaration, intended principally for domestic consumption, was used as a recruiting tool for the colonial military rather than as a “war document,” and if those who are said to have signed it on July 4 only signed the printer’s proof, not the circulated copy, they were probably not concerned about being charged with treason. The second version, which did contain their names, was only available on a single parchment copy that was carefully protected and hidden throughout the war. This version, too, probably would not have generated any fear of bringing charges of treason because, in all likelihood, it would have been destroyed if subsequent events suggested that the war was about to be lost. Finally, the third version, though widely circulated and with all but one of the delegates names, was released at a time when the delegates were aware that signing the British offer of amnesty would negate charges of treason. In essence those who added their names on July 4, 1776, August 2, 1776, or even as late as January 18, 1777, probably did so in full knowledge that, regardless of when or what they signed, the odds of being charged and convicted of treason were extremely remote. The belief that the fifty-six delegates who signed the Declaration had voluntarily engaged in a treasonous act despite the horrendous nature of the punishment that would have ensued if caught, appears to be unfounded.


Whether or not one wishes to view the signers as heroes, it must be said that with few exceptions they were among the ablest, brightest, best educated, and most devoted citizens that America had to offer at the time. Most had attended the leading colleges of the day either in America or England. Of the fifty-six signers, two became Presidents of the United States, two others became United States Senators, and fourteen were state governors. During the early stages of the revolution many took part in committees to draft the Articles of Confederation as well as templates on how to establish alliances with other countries both for trade and to seek help during the war. These points have an important bearing on a further observation regarding the signers posed by Pauline Maier:

Why, however, was it signed at all? Only John Browne, Parliament’s clerk, signed the English Declaration of Rights. Moreover, according to Lois Schwoerer, the members of England’s seventeenth-century Parliaments did not customarily sign instruments they presented to the King, nor were declarations and petitions signed by their drafters elsewhere in Europe. “Of the documents comparable to the Declaration of Rights,” she says, “only the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies was signed by its framers.”[26]

As one possible answer to her question Maier noted that the Crown did not recognize the legitimacy of Congress. By signing this document, the delegates signified that each of the colonies they represented were in support of the terms it contained. “This was, they seemed to say, not the work of an inconsequential faction of colonists, as their critics in England so often alleged, but the voice of the American people and of the men of consequence they selected to speak for them.”[27]

While Maier’s answer certainly could be correct, there is also another way to address this matter. Consider that the Declaration might not have been intended solely for use as either a war document or a recruiting tool, but instead as a legally crafted instrument issued collectively by thirteen sovereign nations (as the term “United States” implies) to bring about a negotiated end to the war. Within the body of the Declaration were the grievances the Crown had been asked to rectify that served as justification for the concluding section which contained the words by Richard Henry Lee as grounds for achieving a solution to end the hostilities.

Following its ratification the fifty-six members of Congress who signed the Declaration were empowered to serve as duly elected bargaining agents or representatives of the United States (“We . . . the Representatives of the United States of America”). Since twenty-five of the fifty-six members were lawyers, they would have been well aware of the need for signatures because it was common practice at the time for sovereign nations to add the signatures of those charged with negotiating contractual arrangements to the bottom of all relevant documents.[28] The earliest example of this use of signatures by one of the colonies is the Treaty of Watertown, which created a negotiated contractual arrangement between the State of Massachusetts Bay and several Native American groups for the purpose of establishing a military alliance. On July 19, 1776 the Treaty was signed by the seventeen governors of the State of Massachusetts Bay.[29]

Although Britain did not agree with the colonies’ self-proclaimed designation as a series of “sovereign nations,” Britain apparently did agree with this proposed use of the Declaration. In March 1778 Parliament authorized the Carlisle Peace Commission to grant the colonies a number of concessions designed to end the war, many of which stemmed directly or indirectly from the grievances in the Declaration.[30] According to Weldon Brown’s summary of the Peace Commission’s mandate,

England proposed a restoration of conditions existing prior to 1763 . . . there was to be a relaxation of the principle of parliamentary legislative supremacy. The colonists were to have a greater share in their government, such as the popular election of governors, and their own customs officials . . . The colonies could have a representation in Parliament, and Parliament would recognize the priority of Congress over American affairs . . . Standing armies in America in peace time could be discarded if the colonies would supply their own troops. Changes in provincial governments and charters were not to be made except by popular consent . . . [and there was to be] colonial freedom from parliamentary taxation.[31]

There is little doubt, based on Brown’s summary, that the concessions offered by the peace commission represented a major shift in how much Britain was willing to sacrifice in order to keep the American colonies within the British fold. Browneven concluded that “The recognition of Congress was a virtual renunciation of the legislative supremacy of Parliament over the internal affairs of the colonies. These instructions [to the Commission] showed that England was at last awaking to the fact that America was a nation, strong and powerful. Beyond the possibility of British subjection.”[32] David Wilson further concluded that when the commission arrived in America it was “empowered by the British king to give Congress nearly anything it wanted to end the rebellion.”[33]

Despite the promise that the commission’s mandate held for reconciliation, its goal was doomed from the start. Owing largely to the victory that the continental army had achieved at Saratoga on October 7, 1777, coupled with an agreement that France would provide military assistance to the colonies, even before the commission arrived in America in June, 1778 their offerings were viewed with contempt. In a rebuke to a draft of the bill received from General Howe concerning the goal of the commissioners, which was “to treat, consult, and agree upon Means of quieting the disorders in the Colonies,”[34] Congress resolved on April 22, 1778, that

these United States cannot with propriety, hold any conference or treaty with any commissions on the part of Great Britain, unless they shall, as a preliminary thereto, either withdraw their fleets and armies, or else, in positive and express terms, acknowledge the independence of said states.[35]

In essence, the delegates were so convinced that America would now win the war there was no need to accept or even consider the commission’s offerings. On June 17, 1778, the final Congressional decision was reached,[36] and the war was allowed to continue until five years later when the Paris Peace Treaty, which finally ended the war, was signed on September 3, 1783.


[1]David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2007), 66.

[2]John Ferling,Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015), 160.

[3]Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 152.

[4]Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974), 120.

[5]Anonymous, American’s Own Book (New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1857), 12.

[6]William Hogeland, Declaration (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 151.

[7]Archibald Laird, Profitable Company: Milestones and Monuments of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Norwell: Christopher Publishing House, 1987), 338.

[8]Frederick R. Goff, The John Dunlap Broadside. The First Printing of the Declaration of Independence (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976).

[9]Wilfred J. Ritz, “The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of independence on July 4, 1776,” Law and History Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1986), 194-195.

[10]Ibid., 189.

[11]Maier, American Scripture, 156.

[12]Jeremy Black, Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Continuum US, 2008), 131.

[13]Maier, American Scripture, 156-158.

[14]Both the Sugar Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1764, and the Stamp Act, passed in 1765, were repealed or revised largely as the result of protests that had taken place throughout the colonies. The same was true for three of the four grievances that stemmed from the Townshend Act, passed in 1767, and in reaction to the grievances associated with the Quartering Act of 1765, New York had refused to provide food and lodging to British troops and no immediate reprisals were forthcoming.

[15]Maier, American Scripture, 131.

[16]Hogeland, Declaration, 175-176.

[17]Mary L. Ritzenthaler & Catherine Nicholson, “The Declaration of Independence and the Hand of Time,” Prologue Magazine Vol. 48. No. 3 (2016).

[18]Maier, American Scripture, 153.

[19]Keith Perry, British Politics and the American Revolution (London: MacMillan Education Inc, 1990), 81.

[20]Hogeland, Declaration, 35-36.

[21]David H. Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 73-76.

[22]Black, Crisis of Empire, 119.

[23]James E. Bradley, Popular Politics and the American Revolution in England (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1986), 96, 133, 215.

[24]Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 161-162.

[25]Laird, Profitable Company, 129.

[26]Maier, American Scripture, 151.

[27]Ibid., 152.

[28]For examples of similar documents with signatures issued in the eighteenth century by Great Britain to achieve contractual agreements with other countries see Charles Jenkinson, A Collection of all the Treaties of Peace, Alliance, and Commerce between Great-Britain the Other Powers(London, England, 1785).

[29]Documentary History of the State of Maine vol. 24 (Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1869-1916), 189-195.

[30]Britain had been well aware of these grievances long before March 1778. Even though the first version of the Declaration (the Dunlap Broadside) was not intended for widespread distribution, four copies had been sent to England by British representatives in the colonies. The grievances had all appeared in London newspapers and elsewhere as early as mid-August 1776 (see Armitage, The Declaration of Independence, 50-51).

[31]Weldon A. Brown, Empire or Independence (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1941), 250-251.

[32]Brown, Empire or Independence, 252.

[33]David K. Wilson, The Southern Strategy (Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 61.

[34]Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1778, 9:446.

[35]Journals of the Continental Congress, 1778, 10:379.

[36]Ibid., 11:614-616.

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