OTD in History… August 2, 1776, Second Continental Congress delegates sign the Declaration of Independence
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 2, 1776, the delegates of the second Continental Congress sign a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence ratified on July 4. On this day, the majority of the 56 Congressional delegates signed their names to an enlarged copy of the Declaration of Independence. For order, they signed by geographic area from the Northern states down to the South. President of the Congress, John Hancock’s signature was in the middle followed underneath by the five rows of signatures, which according to the History Channel, “began with Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire and ending with George Walton of Georgia.” As the Constitution Center indicates, “August 2, 1776, is one of the most important but least celebrated days in American history.”
Fewer delegates were present at the Congress on August 2 than the July 4 ratification 45 to 49 respectively, Generals George Washington, John Sullivan, James Clinton and Christopher Gadsden and Virginia Governor Patrick Henry were absent on that day and could not sign. While, not all the delegates were excited to sign the document, “John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and James Duane, Robert Livingston and John Jay of New York refused to sign, New York was the most reluctant state to endorse independence, they were among seven delegates present at the ratification, who did not sign the declaration. Although, “Carter Braxton of Virginia; Robert Morris of Pennsylvania; George Reed of Delaware; and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina,” opposed the Declaration of independence but signed the document “to give the impression of a unanimous Congress.” Among the delegates who signed the declaration after August 2, were Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, Matthew Thornton, and the seven additional delegates added to the convention after July 4.
The movement towards independence began in earnest in late 1775, when reconciliation with Britain seemed impossible with a banning of trade with the colonies. Benjamin Franklin started hinting of independence to France in December 1775. Independence talk reached a fever pitch when Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense in April 1776 arguing for independence. By June, the Continental Congress first brought a vote for independence finally doing so at the start of July. On July 2, the second Continental Congress meeting in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia voted to sever ties with Great Britain’s monarchy and declare the 13 colonies independent; they ratified their vote on July 4, the day the nation celebrates American Independence each year.
In June 1776, Virginian Richard Henry Lee introduced the resolution which 12 of colonies voted in favor to “dissolved the connection” with Britain, with only New York abstaining. (McCullough, 150) Lee first introduced the resolution on June 7, but New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina were not willing to break with Britain at that point. On June 11, Congress appointed a five-member committee to draft a declaration of independence and causes for separating from Britain, consisting of “John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia,” with Jefferson designated to write the document.
Jefferson decided the document needed to convince the colonists of the need for independence and fighting in the revolution. He stated that government is a social contract with its citizens to protect their rights, “the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, for populist reasons Jefferson replaced to the “pursuit of happiness.” He derived the natural rights argument from political philosopher John Locke, who used in 1668, during Britain’s Glorious Revolution. Jefferson indicated when the government fails to fulfill the contract; it is “self-evident” that the people can break from the government.
The preamble’s most famous line was “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Most of the document, however, was a list of grievances to King George III justifying independence and the Revolutionary War. Historians Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling in their book Events that changed the world in the eighteenth century noted, “The Declaration of Independence is deservedly famous in American history. One would hardly expect to find in it an unbiased resume of grievances; it was meant as propaganda aimed at the undecided both in America and abroad, especially the French.” (Thackeray and Findling 98)
Congress reviewed the document’s final draft on June 28, and on July 1, the Congress took up the vote for independence again, however, they needed an unanimous vote, and waited for the next day, July 2, to vote. Jefferson submitted his revision to what was the Declaration of Independence, and the Congress ratified and published it on July 4 as a Dunlap Broadside officially severing ties with Britain and declaring independence. The Congress had printer John Dunlap make 200 copies of the Declaration. On July 8, Colonel John Nixon of Philadelphia read the document “to the public for the first time in Independence Square.” On July 19, the Congress ordered the Declaration engrossed and inscribed by all members of the Continental Congress, and most signed the copy on August 2.
Although independence leader John Adams of Massachusetts originally thought July 2, the day Congress voted for independence would be celebrated writing, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” the day Congress adopted the Declaration, July 4, remains the official day celebrated for the past 242 years. Adams wrote to his wife Abigail of the vote on July 3, “Yesterday, the greatest question was decided, whichever was decided in America, and a greater question perhaps, never was or will be decided among men.” Adams also predicted Americans would continue celebrating the date, “I am apt to believe that [Independence Day] will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” However, the date Adams referred to was July 2.
The declaration of Independence’s purpose was practical but its impact far greater not only to the then newly formed United States of America but for other nations looking for a Democratic ideal. Historian Joseph J. Ellis in his book American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic identified the significance of Jefferson’s first sentence. Ellis analyzed, “We can say with considerable confidence that these were destined to become the most potent and consequential words in American history, perhaps in modern history. They became the political fountainhead for all the liberal reforms that would seep out and over the nation, and eventually much of the world.” (Ellis, 56) On January 18, 1777, printer Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore printed out the final official copy of the signed Declaration of Independence was printed, it was the first time the delegates names who signed were made public.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Ellis, Joseph J. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
McCullough, David. 1776. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2006.
Thackeray, Frank W. Events That Changed the World in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.