With all deep respect and reverence for our Declaration of Independence, it was not signed on July 4th. Signings began on August 2, 1776 and continued throughout the year as delegates returned to Philadelphia. There was no signing ceremony, though it is beautifully memorialized though a fiction in Trumbill’s painting.
Academics don’t think the document was signed by any of the delegates of the Continental Congress on July 4. The large canvas painting by John Trumbull hanging in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol depicting the signing of the Declaration is, it turns out, a work of fiction at least in part.
The late Pauline Maier, among our nation’s most respected scholars of the early republic and its founding documents, captures my sentiments in her 1997 article for American Heritage, “Making Sense of the Fourth of July“: “In fact, holding our great national festival on the Fourth makes no sense at all — unless we are actually celebrating not just independence but the Declaration of Independence,” she wrote.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough explained in a 2003 address, “Trumbull said [the painting] was meant to represent July 4, 1776, and that’s the popular understanding. But the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4. The signing began on August 2, and continued through the year as absent delegates retuned to Philadelphia. No formal signing ceremony ever took place.”
In total, 86 changes, big and small, were made _ 47 by a committee composed of Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston of New York and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, then 39 others by the Continental Congress, working over the document on July 2 and 3 and the morning of the Fourth, when it was adopted by unanimous vote.
By example, Jefferson used both “states” and “colonies”; the Continental Congress editing sided with “states.” A Jeffersonian paragraph denouncing the slave trade (but not slavery) was deleted. Also deleted was one grievance denouncing the British people for not coming to the aid of their American cousins.
Adams defended Jefferson’s work while Jefferson stood by, writing onto his draft the revisions approved by the Congress. By the time they got to the last paragraph, Jefferson had clearly become perturbed. Rather than writing and inserting the changes, he just wrote in the margin, “A different phraseology inserted.