The Debunker: On What Day Was the Declaration of Independence Signed?

by Ken Jennings

July is the season of barbecues and coolers full of watermelon and supermarket-brand soda. In the United States, at least, it all happens in the service of the nation’s birthday. On the 4th day of this month, Americans celebrate 236 years of independence from their British oppressors, who wanted them to pay taxes on stamps or spell the word “color” with an extra ‘u’ or something. But, as leading political figures occasionally remind us, a lot of what we think we know about the nation’s Founding Fathers is actually a load of hooey. Let Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings give you liberty from all the misinformation before you run for office yourself and make one of these red-white-and-bloopers.

Independence Myth #1: The Declaration of Independence Was Signed on July 4, 1776.

In the mythical version of that sweltering Philadelphia summer of 1776, the delegates of the Continental Congress voted for independence on July 4 and then, in ceremonial fashion, took turns signing Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent declaration to that effect. Some of the delegates even got some good wisecracks in—congress president John Hancock said he signed so big that King George could read it “without his spectacles,” and Ben Franklin joked that the men must hang together, or else “most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

In fact, the oil-painting version of this event is wrong in almost every respect. The critical vote for independence actually took place on July 2, and John Adams wrote to his wife predicting that that date would “be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary festival.” A copy of the final document was sent to the printer on July 4, but that copy is lost, so we have no idea who signed it—possibly John Hancock, possibly others, possibly no one at all. Some of the 56 signatories of the document we have today weren’t even present in July, so most historians accept delegate Thomas McKean’s 1796 account of the signing: it didn’t begin until August 2, when a new handwritten copy, one that had been ordered back on July 19, was presented to Congress. Signatures trickled in for years afterward, and some men who had been instrumental in the declaration’s creation, like New York’s Robert Livingston, never got to sign. McKean himself didn’t add his name until sometimes between 1777 and 1781.

The Hancock and Franklin zingers weren’t added to the story until many decades later, so they’re clearly fanciful. Even worse—for high school stoners, anyway—the historical record reveals that all extant copies of the Declaration were printed on parchment (animal skin), not hemp, as supporters of drug legalization sometime claim. Maybe we need a new conspiracy theory here. Maybe there was a hemp copy too, which the Continental Congress passed around back on 4/20, but then everybody started eating johnnycakes and telling Prussian jokes and they forgot to sign.

Quick Quiz: Every year, the U.S. government prints over 60 million copies of John Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration’s signing. Why?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.