But tell them so, and they will undoubtedly look perplexed. A few knowledgeable souls will probably say, "Well, of course the resolution was adopted on July 2nd and signed by John Hancock then, and a few later members of Congress signed it later, but most of the signature were affixed on July 4th." Sorry, wrong again.
In countless textbooks next to an illustration of John Trumbell's famous depiction of the event and in the stage and film musical 1776 and other artistic recreations, a scene is set forth like a tableau with the assembled members of Congress preparing to each affix their signatures to the Declaration. But when did this happen?
The question is not so simple as it may at first seem, and while historians are mostly satisfied that the answer is now firmly established as August 2, 1776, there are still some who maintain that the original Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. What is certain beyond doubt is that the document on display in the National Archives in Washington, DC is not the "original"," and was signed on August 2, 1776.
Here's the full explanation. On July 2, 1776, 12 of the 13 colonial delegations, with New York abstaining, approved a resolution offered by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia on June 7, "Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
In the intervening four weeks between the making of the motion to adopt the resolution and its adoption, the “Committee of Five” -- Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Robert Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia -- had drafted a document setting forth the grievances of the colonies against the English Crown and Parliament. For the next two days, the Congress debated the language of the Declaration before adopting it in final form on July 4.
What is not known, and likely never will be known unless the working draft is found in a musty attic somewhere, is whether anyone signed the draft as adopted on July 4 or at anytime thereafter. Likely candidates are John Hancock, as President of the Congress, Charles Thomson the Secretary of Congress, and the members of the Committee of Five. In truth, however, it is likely that none, save possibly Thomson, would have signed that day. Over the next several days, copies of the resolution, both handwritten and printed, began circulating. These contained the "signatures" of Hancock and Thomson, though it is unlikely that the handwritten copies were actually signed and the printed copies used plain type. The "Dunlap Broadside," which was printed overnight, is the most famous of these versions.
Although the official record of the Congress states that the Declaration was engrossed and signed on July 4, 1776, this statement is contradicted by several facts. First, at least one member of Congress expressly stated that the Declaration was not signed on the 4th of July, but on August 2nd. Second, the New York delegation did not receive instructions to vote for independence until July 15, so they would not have signed before that date.
Most significantly, it was not until July 19 that Congress adopted a resolution to have the "Declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America' & that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress." The engrossed copy -- they one that now resides in the archives -- was not ready for two more weeks and the signing took place on August 2, 1776. Not every member of Congress who was present on July 4 was present on August 2, and several of the members who voted on the adoption were never able to sign the engrossed version. Moreover, several members elected after July 4 did sign the engrossed version despite not having voted on its adoption.
Thomson, however, did not sign the engrossed version as he was not a "member" of Congress despite having served in his position -- likened by some as more akin to being "prime minister of the colonies" -- for the entire sitting of the Continental Congress in every session until the adoption of the Constitution, and, thus, he has somewhat unfairly benn consigned mostly to an uncelebrated role as a footnote to the history of the great document which he may have been the first to sign in its original version.
So why did the official record say that the Declaration was engrossed and signed on the 4th of July? Because the custom of the time, when important handwritten and printed documents took days or weeks to prepare, the date of adoption was given in the document as the date of engrossment and signing. In law, this is called signing "nunc pro tunc," that is "now for then," and it means that regardless of when the document is signed, its "effective date" is the date given in the document.