On July 4, delegates from the original 13 colonies officially adopted the Declaration of Independence, and as a result we celebrate that date as Independence Day. The more the details and trivia surrounding that day are understood, though, the more arbirtrary that date seems.

On June 7, 1776, Virginia's Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution for independence. Tabled for a day, it was debated on June 8. At that time, independence was generally thought of as inevitable; most believed the question was not if but when, yet not all states were as 'ripe' for outright rebellion as others. According to Jefferson, those states that were not yet convinced were nevertheless close to being so, and so the matter of independence was tabled until July 1. Meanwhile a "Committee of Five," consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston, met to draft a declaration.

By June 30, nine colonies favored independence, two were against, and New York had abstained. Meanwhile, the Delaware delegates were split. Delaware delegate George Read was adamantly opposed to the Declaration, although his fellow representatives, Thomas McKean and Caesar Rodney, favored independence. Although technically there was enough support to carry the motion, congress didn't want to go forward and declare independence without unanimous support.

Night Ride

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on July 1, 1776 and on that date, Lee officially introduced his resolution for independence. Caesar Rodney had been on a tour of the southern part of Delaware in the hopes of quieting the discontent of Loyalists who prevailed in that section of the country as well as to prepare the minds of the people for a change in government. At the time, he also suffered from cancer, which gave rise to the fears of other delegates who worried he might not be able to arrive in Philadelphia in time to break the Delaware delegation's deadlock. Still, the delegates got word to Rodney that his vote for independence was needed desperately. As night darkened the sky and the first of July turned into the second, Rodney rode through a thunderstorm, covering 80 miles, until he arrived at Independence Hall just in time to cast his decisive vote.

With this vote on July 2, the thirteen colonies had unanimously voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence; the colonies were going to war against the crown. Technically, though, New York's delegates withheld their support until July 9 when their home assembly authorized them to vote in favor of independence. Nevertheless, on July 4, Congress is said to have 'adopted' the Declaration of Independence.

Nearly a month would go by, however, before the actual signing of the document took place.

Independence Month?

After the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the "Committee of Five" was charged with overseeing the reproduction of the approved text. This was completed at the shop of Philadelphia printer John Dunlap and by the following day, copies were being dispatched to newspapers, local officials and the commanders of the Continental troops across the 13 colonies. These "Dunlap broadsides" predate the version signed by the delegates.

The names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were withheld from the public for more than six months to protect the signers. If independence had not been achieved, the treasonable act of the signers would have, by law, resulted in their death.

At noon on July 8, the Declaration of Independence was read to the public in Philadelphia, where there were few 'respectable' people. The following day it was read in New York 'in a clear voice' by General George Washington. With hundreds of British naval ships occupying New York Harbor, revolutionary spirit and military tensions were running high. After Washington read the document in front of City Hall, a wild crowd cheered and later that day tore down a statue of George III. Subsequently, the statue was melted down and shaped into more than 42,000 musket balls for the American army.

On July 18, the declaration was read in Boston, accompanied by church chimes and the firing of cannon. To this day, Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, celebrates Independence Day on July 25, because news of the adoption of the Declaration in Philadelphia did not reach that city until three weeks after July 4, 1776.

The Document

The first signature on the Declaration of Independence was John Hancock's. It is said that he wrote his name large so that King George would be able to read it without his glasses.

While the majority of those who signed were native-born Americans, eight of the men voting for independence from Britain had been born there. Gwinnett Button and Robert Morris were born in England, Francis Lewis was born in Wales, James Wilson and John Witherspoon were born in Scotland, George Taylor and Matthew Thornton were born in Ireland and James Smith hailed from Northern Ireland.

Nearly a month went by before the actual signing of the document. It took two weeks for the Declaration to be written on parchment in a clear hand. Most of the delegates, then, signed on August 2 while several signed on a later date and two, John Dickinson and Robert R. Livingston, never signed at all. The signed parchment resides at the National Archives in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, alongside the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Briefly, though, it was removed from public display.


On December 23, 1941, a little more than two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Declaration (along with the Constitution) was removed under the supervision of armed guards. Packed into a specially designed container, latched with padlocks, sealed with lead, and placed in a larger box — 150 lbs. of protective gear — the document, accompanied by Secret Service agents, traveled by train to Louisville, Ky. In Kentucky, a cavalry troop of the 13th Armored Division escorted the Declaration to Fort Knox. In 1944, it was returned to Washington, D.C. where it once again resides in the National Archives.

Although which date best represents the moment of America's birth might be debated by scholars, at this point July 4th is set in stone. Literally. Given as a gift from the people of France in 1886, the Statue of Liberty includes an important reference to time; in her left hand she holds a book inscribed with the date 'July 4, 1776.'