When did Congress pass the Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776?
Is this account of the order of Congress Business, compiled over a century later, reliable?
From the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789
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Points of Note:

  • This account provides a possible order of events during the day with a 9am start on 4 July 1776. One item (the supply of flints for the troops) was discussed before passing the Declaration of Independence (DoI) and eight items afterwards. Congress further considered the Declaration "and after some time, the president [Harrison] resumed the chair" and ... "[Congress] agreed to a Declaration, ... The Declaration being read again ... ". Assuming the account is in chronological order then it favours an agreement in the late morning or early afternoon. (Virgo or Libra Rising)
  • An unreliable Source? The Journal of Congress (JoC) may not be an entirely reliable source.
    • Times not recorded: No times are given other than business was set to commence at 9am.
    • Edited Version of Events: This record of events was edited from the original records in the Library of Congress some 130 years after the event in 1776. So the outline is written retrospectively (unlike Thomson's notes on the day) or redacted. Snippets of subsequent articles, letters and comments have been cobbled together like a flawed jig-saw that appears to fit together.
    • Later Engrossed Copy? The text recites "The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America" which corresponds to the engrossed copy (neatly written by hand) of the DoI which may not have existed on 4th July. According to the Journal on July, 19, 1776 it was resolved "That the Declaration passed on 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of "The unanimous declaration of the thirteen states of the United States of America." and that the same when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."
    • Who, if anyone, Signed? The Journal lists 56 signatories on 4th July but the list included delegates who were not present and several who had not at the time been elected to Congress. This suggests conflation of this event with a later signing. The Journal entry for Friday, August, 2, 1776 reads: "The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members."
    • Unanimous? Were the delegates from New York (marked on the scan (above right) in the round cornered square) able to approve the Declaration on 4th July or did they need authority from the convention of New York? [See JoC 15 July 1776]
  • Deliberation and Authentication There appears to have been much deliberation about passing the document "... to take into their farther consideration...", "... after some time ..." and "... being again read ... ". Evidently this was not a case of rubber stamping the document, but did this process take several minutes or several hours? If other matters were addressed later, the DoI may have been passed well before the end of the day. However, after passing the document there appear to be various processes: "... declaration be authenticated and printed." To authenticate a document is "to prove that it is genuine, to give legal validity to, to certify the authorship of " (Chambers Dictionary 2010) So just as an artist signs a painting, so a document receives authority by signature of the author or authors.

    Printing followed days later by Signing? The Journal follows this up with "That the committee appointed to prepare the declaration, superintend and correct the press." It seems clear that this means that committee who had prepared the document (Thomas Jefferson with the help of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin and Robert R. Livington) manage the document and proof-read it for printing. And it could reasonably be assumed that this occurred over the next 15 days when it was engrossed (July, 19) and then officially signed two weeks later on (August, 2).

    Or was there a signing late in the day followed by fast-track overnight printing? Authentication may have also taken a faster track given that copies were printed overnight and as resolved by Congress "sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the contintental troops ... " So it seems highly unlikely that 200 copies should be printed if the original was not authenticated. So though it is evident that there were not 56 signatories as claimed in the Journal, there had to have been some formal signature. Now this was most likely to have been John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress and Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress (as their names printed on the broadsides). However, were these two names alone sufficient as officials of Congress? Or were these considered the most significant signatures selected from a small number of delegates? Surely authentication would have required at least a signature by the author, Thomas Jefferson or one of the committee of five. They were initially charged with preparing the Declaration and then for "superintending" and "correcting the press". And if so, when did this signing of the 'correct for press' original occur - Jefferson was out buying gloves in the morning? So was the Declaration checked and engrossed during the day and then signed off as authentic before dispatch to the printers?

    There is no clear answer!


  • Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. Edited from the original records in the Library of Congress ... Published 1904-37 by U.S. Govt. print off. in Washington. Volume: V. June 5-Oct. 8, 1776. Entry for Thursday, July 4, 1776 pp.509-518. Published. 1906.

Robert Currey, 1st Feb. 2013

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