Philadelphia was one of the most prominent cities in early American history. It was home to the United States’ first library, hospital, and business school. The city even served as the nation’s first capital from 1790 to 1800. And Philadelphia was the setting for the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Every fourth of July fireworks fill the air and people from all over the country gather together to celebrate the birth of the nation. However, in one small historical twist the Continental Congress declared independence on July 2nd and not July 4th. In a letter by John Adams to his wife Abigail, he wrote, “the second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America. I’m apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding Generations as the great anniversary Festival.” On the last page of the Pennsylvania Evening Post’s July 2nd, 1776, edition was this line: “This day the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES.” So, while July 2nd was the day when independence was declared, July 4th was the day that the decision to declare independence from the British crown became an official public document.
On the evening of July 4th Thomas Jefferson brought a copy of the Declaration of Independence to John Dunlap, the official printer of the U.S. Congress. John Dunlap set the type and printed the declaration on Dutch Crown paper for distribution. These copies became known as the Dunlap Broadsides. It is unknown just how many copies were printed, but it can be assumed it was in the hundreds. The broadside, the official declaration of the new independent states, was distributed across the colonies, printed in the newspapers, and delivered to the King of England.
However, in one more historical twist, the Dunlap Broadside didn’t have any signatures. It listed only two printed names, John Hancock, the President of the Congress, and Charles Thomson, the Secretary. It wasn’t until Hancock declared, “Am I the only one who will be tried for treason,” that the delegates were sent back to Philadelphia to personally sign the Declaration. According to Mellen Chamberlain the author of The Authentication of the Declaration of Independence, the 56th and final signature of the Declaration was penned by the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Thomas McKean in 1781. The Declaration of Independence that resides in the National Archives’ Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom with the 56 signatures and the swooping John Hancock signature is the secondary reproduction, the official commemorative Declaration of Independence.