The Story Behind Who Signed The Declaration Of Independence When


Earlier this week I wrote about my recent visit to the Massachusetts Historical Society. I spoke with librarian Peter Drummey about the society's new exhibit which explores the history associated with July 2, 1776. It was that day, or so thought founding father John Adams, that would be celebrated as the nation's birthday because that was the day the Continental Congress resolved that the colonies were free and independent states. Adams thought that was the real Declaration of Independence. Well I learned a few other things during that visit that reminded, me at least, that we don't always know the history we think we do.

I always assumed that everyone signed the Declaration of Independence after the final text was approved on July 4, 1776. Peter Drummey says not so much. "There is no signing as we understand it," Drummey said as he showed me one of the first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence, printed by newspaper printer John Dunlap soon after the Continental Congress approved it on this date 236 years ago. "When we look at the first printing of the Declaration, it says, ‘signed by order and in behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President and then Charles Thomson, the secretary of the convention attests.’ So only those people would be signers in the sense that we understand signers."

As Peter Drummey says, blame the musical "1776." Here's the "signing" scene.

On July 4, 1776, besides joining the other members of the Continental Congress in approving the final text of the Declaration of Independence, a document he wrote the original draft for, Thomas Jefferson bought a present for his wife back home in Virginia. Peter Drummey showed me Jefferson's 1776 Philadelphia Almanack, a sort of Farmers' Almanac of its day. On one of the blank pages Jefferson details his spending during an Independence Day shopping spree. "Paid Sparhawk for a thermometer, 3 pounds, 15 shillings (a lot of money, Drummey notes) paid for 7 pairs of women's gloves, 27 shillings, gave in charity 1 shilling, 6 pence."

As he looked at Jefferson's fine, neat handwriting, Drummey said, "it's wonderful to think of Jefferson from the country in the urban center of America, Philadelphia, and he's a true revolutionary, but at the same time he's taking advantage of the opportunity that presents being in such a place to get a scientific instrument, to go shopping and buy 7 pairs of women's gloves. So on the fourth of July Thomas Jefferson goes shopping. Martha Jefferson probably longed for him to return home, but nevertheless he had something for her when he got back."

Indeed he did.

This program aired on July 4, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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