Like any group effort, the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence involved some give-and-take and even drama.
These seven facts relay some of the Declaration’s back story:
- The youngest signatory was 26-year-old Edward Rutledge, who was initially opposed to independence from Britain, but voted to adopt for the sake of unanimity. He later was captured by the British but eventually released. Good old Benjamin Franklin was the oldest, at 70.
- Signatory Richard Stockton also was captured by the British and recanted his signature under duress.
- In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, included slavery among his list of grievances against King George of England:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere”
This grievance was edited out at the request of delegates from South Carolina. This Wikipedia article discusses how rebuttals challenged the document’s “all men are created equal” claims and the impact on American slavery.
- In what might resemble a writer’s worst nightmare, the members of the Continental Congress spent two days editing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. He sent copies to several friends with changes indicated, and Henry Lee consoled him, “I wish sincerely, as well for the honor of Congress, as for that of the States, that the Manuscript had not been mangled as it is.”
- Whether the Declaration was signed on July 4 is up for debate. The version of events generally accepted by historians is that Congress adopted the Declaration on July 4 and its president, John Hancock, signed, along with his secretary. On July 19, a handwritten copy was produced to bear all the delegates’ signatures; most signed Aug. 2. The Library of Congress website shows all this on a timeline for you.
- Gen. George Washington read the Declaration of Independence to his troops in New York City on July 9. Soon after, they destroyed the statue of King George III at the foot of Broadway and used the lead to make musket balls.
- Of the 200 broadsides John Dunlap of Philadelphia printed on the night of July 4, 1776, 26 are known to survive. One was the flea market find of a lifetime: In 1989, a shopper discovered the broadside behind a framed painting he bought for $4. In 2000, it went for $8.14 million at auction.
Learn even more about the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives Charters of Freedom exhibit.
Let genealogy expert and “Who Do You Think You Are?” researcher D. Joshua Taylor help you find your Patriot ancestors in our Researching Revolutionary War Ancestors video course.