Signing of the Declaration of Independence

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

A chronology of the drafting, adoption, and initial publication of the nation’s founding document.


3 - 12


Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History


Voting on the Declaration of Independence

After much debate, the Second Continental Congress ultimately agreed to the Declaration of Independence, and then signed it on August 2, 1776, in the Pennsylvania State House.

Painting by Robert Edge Pine
After much debate, the Second Continental Congress ultimately agreed to the Declaration of Independence, and then signed it on August 2, 1776, in the Pennsylvania State House.
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The famous printed version of the Declaration of Independence is decorated with the words "In Congress, July 4, 1776." It is boldly signed by John Hancock and the founders at the bottom. Curiously, it was not officially signed July 4th. The document, so important to the United States of America, was written through a process that took time and cooperation.

Beginning Drafts of the Declaration

In May of 1775, Congress was seated in the Pennsylvania State House. Weeks earlier, hostilities had broken out between the British troops and colonial soldiers in Massachusetts. The British king had ignored a written complaint sent by Congress earlier that stated the colonists' frustrations. In August of 1775, the King declared the colonies to be in open rebellion. Congress swiftly formed a Continental Army under the command of George Washington. Support was steadily growing throughout the colonies for independence from Great Britain.

On June 7, 1776, a Virginia lawmaker named Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution in Congress. This resolution stated that the colonies had the right to be independent states. It also declared that colonies should be free from allegiance to the British Crown. Lastly, it stated that all political connection to Britain should be dissolved. Other town and colonial groups were issuing similar pleas.

Such a strong action demanded careful deliberation. On June 11, Congress organized a process to clarify this resolution. It appointed a five-member committee to draft a public statement that would further explain the reasons for declaring independence should Congress decide to do so. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were on the committee. Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman were also appointed. The fifth member, Thomas Jefferson, was chosen to be the document's principal drafter. After incorporating suggestions by Adams and Franklin, the committee submitted its draft declaration to the Congress on June 28.

Congress debated the declaration on July 1. Nine colonies were prepared to vote in favor. Delegates from South Carolina and Pennsylvania were opposed. Two Delaware delegates were stuck about their decision. The New York delegates were unable to vote, since they were instructed to cooperate with the king. Overnight, however, the situation changed. On July 2, Caesar Rodney rode in to Philadelphia from Delaware, bringing a tie-breaking vote in favor of independence. South Carolina shifted its position in favor, and the Pennsylvania opponents chose to stay away. When the vote was called on July 2, the written statement passed by a vote of 12 to zero, with New York abstaining. After this historic decision, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, predicting that future Americans would celebrate independence July 2.

Further Edits and First Printing

Fueled by growing threats of battle with the British, Congress began debating the declaration. They made further edits to the writing, yet left in Jefferson's passionate opening paragraphs. On July 4, Congress approved the final draft.

That evening, the complete text of "a Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America" was ordered to be printed. It is believed that about 200 copies were published on July 5. Only about 25 still exist today. The document was signed by John Hancock. It was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia on July 8. Over the next few weeks it was reprinted in newspapers up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It wasn't until July 9 that New York finally joined the other colonies. A few days later, the news reached Philadelphia that the colonies were fully united upon independence. On July 19, Congress ordered an official copy of the declaration for the delegates to sign.

Signing the Declaration

On August 2, 1776, Congress members signed the declaration inside the Pennsylvania State House. Not every man who had been present on July 4 signed the declaration on August 2. Two important officials passed up the chance to sign and others were added later. The first and largest signature was that of the president of the Congress, John Hancock.

The mood in the room was far from celebratory. Everyone was aware of what they were undertaking. It was an act of high treason against the British Crown that could cost each man his life. Recalling the day many years later, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a civic leader in Philadelphia wrote about how awful and silent the house was as each member was "called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress." There they signed "what was believed ... at that time to be our own death warrants."

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

April 9, 2024

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