Thomas Jefferson (right), Benjamin Franklin (left), and John Adams (center) meet at Jefferson's lodgings, on the corner of Seventh and High (Market) streets in Philadelphia, to review a draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Wikimedia Commons / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
discovery / memory

Was the Declaration of Independence Signed on July 4?

How memory plays tricks with history.
Early in 1814, thirteen years into his retirement, John Adams received a bizarre letter from Thomas McKean, a former colleague in the First and Second Continental Congresses. “I will give you an historical fact respecting the declaration of Independence, which may amuse, if not surprize,” McKean wrote. “In the printed public journal of Congress for 1776, vol. 2 it appears, that the Declaration of Independence was declared on the 4th of July 1776 by the Gentleman, whose names are there inserted, whereas no person signed it on that day.” (Emphasis added.) He then listed seven men whose names were affixed to the document but were not even present. McKean, on the other hand, had been “present in Congress on the 4th of July, & voted for Independence.” If others had signed it on that day, he certainly would have as well—and yet, mysteriously, his name had not been included on the list of signers in the July 4, 1776, entry of the Journals of Congress that was published in 1778.

Really? This quintessential moment in our nation’s history—signing the Declaration of Independence—didn’t happen on July 4, 1776? That was not how John Adams remembered it. Rather than refute McKean directly (these two aging patriots had formerly quarreled but were then on good terms), Adams passed the letter on to Mercy Otis Warren, who had authored a history of the American Revolution. “I send you a curiosity,” he opened—and he then flatly rejected McKean’s claim. The Declaration had been “prepared and signed on the 4th. What are we to think of history? When in less than 40 years, such diversities appear in the memories of living persons, who were witnesses?”
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