Tuesday Trivia: The Declaration of Independence & Independence Day

J. H. Osborne • Updated Jul 3, 2018 at 12:21 PM

Tomorrow is Independence Day, colloquially known as the Fourth of July. It's the United State's birthday, celebrated with fireworks, parades, cookouts and concerts.

But how did July 4 become the day? On that day in 1776, the Contintental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. One of three documents known as the Charters of Freedom, the original Declaration of Independence is displayed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

For this week's "Tuesday Trivia," we've gleened these facts from the National Archive's website:

• The Declaration of Independence announces a complete break with Britain and expresses the ideals on which the United States was founded: “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.”

How it came to be

• In the early 1770s, American colonists, under British rule, saw a pattern of increasing oppression and corruption happening all around the world. The colonists elected delegates to attend a Continental Congress that eventually became the governing body of the union during the Revolution. Its second meeting convened in Philadelphia in 1775. In less than a year, most of the delegates abandoned hope of reconciliation with Britain. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” They appointed a Committee of Five to write an announcement explaining the reasons for independence. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who chaired the committee and had established himself as a bold and talented political writer, wrote the first draft. Other members of the committee were: John Adams of Massachusetts; Roger Sherman of Connecticut; Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania; and Robert R. Livingston of New York.

• On June 11, 1776, Jefferson holed up in his Philadelphia boarding house and began to write. He borrowed freely from existing documents like the Virginia Declaration of Rights and incorporated accepted ideals of the Enlightenment. Jefferson later explained that “he was not striving for originality of principal or sentiment.” Instead, he hoped his words served as an “expression of the American mind.” Less than three weeks after he’d begun, he presented his draft to Congress.

• On July 2, 1776, Congress voted to declare independence. Two days later, it ratified the text of the Declaration. John Dunlap, official printer to Congress, worked through the night to set the Declaration in type and print approximately 200 copies. These copies, known as the Dunlap Broadsides, were sent to various committees, assemblies and commanders of the Continental troops.

• One of the most widely held misconceptions about the Declaration is that it was signed on July 4, 1776, by all the delegates in attendance.

• By July 9, the action of Congress had been officially approved by all 13 colonies. On July 19, Congress ordered the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."

• On Aug. 2, the journal of the Continental Congress records that "The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed."

• John Hancock, the President of the Congress, was the first to sign the sheet of parchment measuring 24¼ by 29¾ inches. He used a bold signature centered below the text. In accordance with prevailing custom, the other delegates began to sign at the right below the text, their signatures arranged according to the geographic location of the states they represented. New Hampshire, the northernmost state, began the list, and Georgia, the southernmost, ended it. Eventually, 56 delegates signed, although all were not present on Aug. 2.

• There is one line of text along the bottom edge on the back of the Declaration. It reads, "Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776," This docket (identifying label) was visible when the document was rolled up for storage.

Where has it been kept?

• During the Revolutionary War, the original document traveled with the Continental Congress. Afterward, it was cared for by various departments of government in various locations — until its permanent home was constructed at the National Archives.

• Its locations over the years: Washington, D.C. (three sites): 1800-1814; Leesburg, VA: August-September 1814 (taken there and hidden as British troops ransacked Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812); Washington, D.C. (three sites): 1814-1841; Washington, D.C. (Patent Office Building): 1841-1876; Philadelphia: May-November 1876 (for the Centennial Exposition celebrating the nation's 100th birthday); Washington, D.C. (State, War, and Navy Building): 1877-1921; Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress): 1921-1941; Fort Knox*: 1941-1944 (for protection during World War II, except that the document was displayed on April 13, 1943, at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.); Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress): 1944-1952; Washington, D.C. (National Archives): 1952-present.


• In 1820, the Declaration of Independence was already showing signs of age. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned printer William J. Stone to make a full-size copperplate engraving. This plate was used to print copies of the Declaration. The 1823 Stone engraving is the most frequently reproduced version of the Declaration.

• 26 copies of the Dunlap broadside are known to exist today and are dispersed among American and British institutions and private owners.

About the signers

• In an event of historic coincidence, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4,1826: the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It is rumored that late in the afternoon before John Adams died, unaware of the passing of Jefferson, he said “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

• Benjamin Franklin was the oldest signer at 70 years old. He was born on Jan. 17, 1706, in Boston.

• Two of the signers were 26 at the time of the signing. Edward Rutledge (Nov. 23, 1749) edged out Thomas Lynch Jr. (Aug. 5, 1749) by just over three months to be the youngest signer.

• Four signers were physicians, 24 were lawyers, and one was a printer. The remaining signers were mostly merchants or plantation owners. Two were also clergymen: John Witherspoon was a presbyterian minister, and Lyman Hall was a pastor, teacher, and physician.

• Pennsylvania had the largest number of representatives with nine signers. The second largest group came from Virginia, which had seven signers.

• Eight signers were born in Europe. James Smith, George Taylor and Matthew Thorton were born in Ireland. Robert Morris and Button Gwinnett were born in England. James Wilson and John Witherspoon were born in Scotland. Finally, Francis Lewis was born in Wales.

On public display

• You can view the Declaration of Independence, along with the United State Constitution and Bill of Rights, at the National Archives, where it is sealed in the most scientifically advanced housing that preservation technology can provide.

See the story on film or live on stage

• If you’d like to see an entertaining depiction of the the writing of the Declaration of Independence, check out the musical “1776.” The movie stars William Daniels as John Adams and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson. Or, you could see the musical performed tonight in Jonesborough by the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre. Showtime is 7:30 at the theatre, located at 125.5 West Main St., Jonesborough. Ticket prices are $16 general admission and $14 for students and seniors.

For more information, visit https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration.