Did You Know? 10 Facts About the Declaration of Independence

June 27, 2014

1. The Declaration of Independence was not actually signed on July 4, 1776.

The Second Continental Congress adopted it that day, but the 56 representatives did not take up the quill pen until Aug. 2 – nearly a month later.

These and other details are part of the wealth of items in the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The permanent exhibit, “Declaring Independence: Creating and Recreating America’s Document,” highlights the collection U.Va. alumnus Albert H. Small donated to the University, and includes one of only 25 known surviving copies of the first printing of the declaration – which was produced on July 4. Just without all those signatures affixed at the bottom.

John Dunlap, the official printer of Congress, worked all night and into the next morning to produce the broadside – a large, single-sided sheet, similar to a poster.

2. The only names that appear on that first copy are those of John Hancock, Congress president, and secretary Charles Thomson.

3. The library’s copy was very likely stolen from George Washington.

“There is a strong possibility that the Albert Small copy of the Dunlap broadside, now at U.Va., once belonged to George Washington,” said David R. Whitesell, curator of special collections. “Its provenance can be traced back to the early 19th century, when it was in Tobias Lear’s possession. Lear, who was Washington’s personal secretary late in life, is known to have taken a number of documents, possibly including this broadside, from Washington’s papers shortly after Washington’s death in 1799.”

4. The Pennsylvania Evening Post featured the declaration in its July 6 edition, the first to print it after the Dunlap broadside.

On July 5, Hancock had the broadsides distributed to be read and posted. Additional printings quickly multiplied throughout the colonies to spread the news of independence. The collection includes a copy of the Philadelphia newspaper, as well as newspaper reports from other colonies. 

5.  Thomas Jefferson was just 33 years old when he wrote the declaration, but already a well-known and accomplished writer. He received help from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to draft the revolutionary document he called “an expression of the American mind.”

6. The New York delegation at first abstained from adopting the declaration at the July 4 meeting.

Whitesell said, “The New York delegates to the Continental Congress abstained from adopting the declaration because they were awaiting instructions from the New York Provincial Congress. Those instructions (to vote for independence) did not arrive until after July 4, because the New York Provincial Congress had to evacuate New York on June 30 as British military forces approached.”

7. Ralph Trembly’s lithograph of the Founding Fathers signing the declaration depicts a fictional event.

The lithograph reproduced a painting by John Trumbull, which today hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The U.S. Congress commissioned Trumbull in 1817 to make the painting – even though it does not include all of the signers – together on July 4.

8. The signers knew what they were doing might cost them their lives.

Benjamin Rush, representative of Pennsylvania, wrote their action “was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants.” The British did target the Founding Fathers, destroying and looting many of their homes. There’s a story that John Hart of New Jersey, when he came out of hiding and returned home, never found all of his children.

9. The Marquis de Lafayette hung an official engraving of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in his bedroom suite.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned an official facsimile of the declaration, and 200 copies were printed, two of which the State Department gave to Lafayette.

10. The Albert Small collection is the most comprehensive collection of letters, documents and early printings relating to the declaration and its signers.

The exhibit also includes printings of the declaration through history, letters and documents from the 56 signers, and a 13-minute documentary film showing the story of the events that led to the founding of this country. Although the library is closed on the national holiday, its regular hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications