8 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence – a statement adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776 that announced that the 13 American colonies, then at war with Great Britain, regarded themselves as 13 newly independent sovereign states, and no longer part of the British Empire – is one of the most celebrated and significant documents in history. But how much do you know about it? Here, we bring you eight facts...

A depiction of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776, from a painting by John Trumbull. The men standing are (l to r) John Adams, Roger Sherman Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

1) In June 1776, a committee was appointed to draft a Declaration of Independence. Within the Committee of Five, Thomas Jefferson assumed the role of lead author. The other four — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R Livingston — made only minor, verbal suggestions.

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2) The committee spent 17 days writing the declaration – from 11–28 June 1776.

3) The text of the declaration can be divided into five sections: the introduction; the preamble; the indictment of George III; the denunciation of the British people, and the conclusion.

4) The finished draft was forwarded to Congress on 1 July 1776, but a number of amendments and deletions were made before the text was ratified – including the removal of Jefferson’s lengthy condemnation of slavery. The deletion was designed to appease delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, says the New York Public Library (NYPL).

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Page 1 of the Declaration of Independence. (Credit the New York Public Library)

5) One of the most widely held misconceptions about the declaration is that it was signed on 4 July 1776 by all the delegates in attendance, says the US National Archives and Records Administration. In fact the document was signed on 2 August after being engrossed (prepared in a large, clear hand), most likely by Pennyslvanian Timothy Matlack. Delegates did indeed vote to adopt the declaration on 4 July, however.

6) Jefferson was troubled by the alterations to his text, says the NYPL, so in July 1776 he made several copies of the complete text, highlighting where changes were made, and sent them to five or six friends. Of these copies, only two complete versions are known to have survived: one is owned by the NYPL, and a second is now owned by the American Philosophical Society. The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a fragment of another copy.

7) It has been suggested, though never proved, that the NYPL’s copy of the Declaration of Independence is the one Jefferson sent to his former law professor and mentor, George Wythe.

A depiction of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence
A depiction of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July, 1776, from a painting by John Trumbull. The men standing are (l to r) John Adams, Roger Sherman Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
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8) A handful of delegates who voted for the adoption of the declaration on 4 July never signed it, despite an order of Congress on 19 July that the engrossed document “be signed by every member of Congress”. Non-signers included Robert R Livingston, one of the Committee of Five (who wrote the declaration), who thought the declaration was premature, and John Dickinson, who hoped for reconciliation with Britain.